Career Specialization in a Full-Stack World

Software engineer working on laptop in the dark

Few career choices have changed as rapidly as software engineering in the past 25 years. The discipline itself has become almost permanently dynamic. We spoke with one of Aerotek’s longtime star contract engineers and their Aerotek career partner to get a 360° view of the evolving workplace for software engineers.

Before the Internet was the Internet

When Kevin Farley graduated with his BS in computer science, the world of software, systems and technology looked decidedly different than it does now. As Kevin tells it, they were building the deep-level architecture that much of the higher-level systems, programs, machines and applications run on today.

Aerotek contract employee Kevin Farley

“When I graduated with my Computer Science BS degree, the Internet was still ARPANet. Right out of school I was recruited by the federal government to work on the ‘Star Wars’ Missile Defense Program under the Reagan administration. It was a project that, to this day, I still can't talk about.”

Embedded everywhere

What Kevin can talk about are his early days in the computer science field at the forefront of embedded systems — engineering at the lowest level of hardware and software functionality.

“Those were very different days. TokenRing was still common. I was working on a number of single-board computers on VMEbus systems that connected to mini-computers and workstations, work that paved the way for today’s tiny single-board computers. I was working on what’s called embedded systems, extremely low-level, often real-time, machine-to-machine operations.”

“What we were doing then was laying the groundwork, in a lot of ways, for what we now think of as the Internet of things (IoT). And the challenges remain similar too, even if now it’s made more complicated with the sheer number and types of devices in our world. But the aim is still the same — leverage embedded technology to allow these machines to talk to each other.”

The OG hackers

Fair or not, the stereotypical image of computer science majors was once that of the consummate nerd. We wondered if that image is changing as the business has come to be defined by high-tech companies. Kevin shared, “Yeah, the world of work is a different place than when I started out. We were the original hackers. That’s literally what we called ourselves, in a complementary way. My generation of systems engineers were constantly striving to get each other to say, ‘wow — how’d you do that?!’”.>

Today’s tech world, where nerds and hackers represent a new cool, seems different from the engineering culture Kevin came from in the late 80s. Kevin agreed. “We had a mentality back then that’s different from today. Most of the younger engineers coming into the industry today are seeking to specialize in higher-level programs and applications. But there’s still a small group of guys and gals like me who love working down at the lowest level. In our spare time we get our kicks hacking around with Raspberry Pi’s. It’s a small single-board computing device that you can program directly and get it to do cool stuff. In a way, I guess we’re still hacking — whether in our spare time or on the job.”

Full-stack opportunities

Kevin’s take on the nature of skills and talent up and down the tech stack intrigued us. We checked-in with Aerotek’s Emily Vlkojan, a senior account manager specializing in software engineering and embedded systems, to get her take.>

“Yes, he’s exactly right. Several years ago our clients were looking for a lot of lower level embedded developers like Kevin. But as we see the world moving towards an Internet of things and everything moving to >cloud-based technologies, the demand for upper stack developers is high. Where once we sought specialists in embedded C, C++ and Assembler — all lower level languages — now we are constantly on the lookout for highly skilled engineers and developers fluent in Java, Python and C#. In just a few short years, the skills demand has changed drastically.”

Re-skilling for career success

Experience has taught us that software engineers like Kevin get to where they are through a career-long dedication to constant learning. As Kevin tells it, “I’ve had jobs where they needed someone to work on a solution in a programming environment I wasn’t familiar with — yet. That didn’t stop me from figuring it out and taking on the challenge. I never stop learning, and it’s served me well over these many years.”

Emily adamantly agreed. “Yes, engineers like Kevin enjoy such rich careers because they’re eager and able to learn new things. The companies where we place these engineers tend to be equally eager to support their learning — literally paying for them to come up to speed on a new language, system, architecture or environment. They know it’s in their best interest. And pros like Kevin add to their portfolio of skills and boost their resumes. Everybody wins.”

Changing industry landscape

Emily and Aerotek have a deep understanding of the types of positions companies need, and those needs are changing.

“It’s very interesting how the field is opening up. Traditionally, the need for skilled software engineers up and down the application stack has been driven by technology companies. But in the emerging world of connected devices and Internet everywhere, we’re seeing more and more traditional manufacturing companies whose products are now being asked to ship with embedded intelligence. More and more products are becoming smart devices.”

Emily continued, “This is a challenge for many traditional manufacturing companies who don’t have the internal culture or expertise to build these new capabilities in-house. This is where our people become key to helping identify and define the need, and then find the appropriate level of engineering talent to fill it. Increasingly, this is a demand for embedded solutions skills. Our knowledge and experience in this space allows our customers to build this expertise internally, a big benefit to them from a business perspective.”

Curiosity makes the engineer

At Aerotek, it’s not exaggerating to say our people really are everything to us. That makes us perpetually curious about how engineers like Kevin Farley got their start in the discipline and what’s behind their continued success. Working with thousands of engineers a year, we’ve learned there are as many different stories as there are engineers. Kevin didn’t disappoint with his story.

“All through high school I was Mr. Chemistry. Absolutely everyone, including me, assumed that’s the career path I’d take. Well, when I sat down and was filling out my college application in 1983, out of the blue, I wrote down ‘computer science’ and I didn’t even know what it was. I found out quickly and took to it like a fish to water. I loved all the intense amount of detail.  The way they taught computer science back in those days was a lot different than today. They trained us to work on some seriously low level stuff, writing to registers, Boolean logic, how operating systems work in detail. It was a great foundation for a guy like me.”

“Whatever it was that inspired me to write down ‘computer science’ that day, has informed my approach to work ever since. I guess it’s about curiosity. I tell young engineers that graduating college isn’t the end of their training, but the beginning. I tell them to remain hungry for knowledge. Have your own projects on the side. Take things apart, asking ‘how does this work’, can it be hacked — can I hack it.’”

We learned from Emily how Kevin’s curiosity fuels an equally rich imagination. This imagination also drives Kevin’s career as an author. “I’ve written and published three books,” Kevin told us. “You’ll be surprised, they’re not technical books, but science-fiction and fantasy. I think a lot of engineers will identify with my super active imagination, and putting it to productive use. It goes back to challenging yourself, stretching yourself and paying attention to the deep details. It’s the key to all sorts of success in life and work.”

Working with engineers like Kevin over the course of their careers makes us both proud and humble. If you’re the type of engineer who recognizes some of yourself reflected in Kevin, we’d love to connect and stay connected with you. Please get in touch by creating or modifying your free career account view our current software engineer job opportunities — across the full stack.

Kevin Farley appears courtesy of Engineering Practice Lead Emily Vlokjan.