Escasa: So you want a career in IT?

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By Daniel O. Escasa A few weeks ago, I got a LinkedIn request from my niece. What, my niece, connecting with me on LinkedIn? Of course, I accepted the connection request ? notwithstanding the standard ?I’d like to add you to my network? message. Ordinarily ? i.e., for people I don’t know outside of LinkedIn ? a connection request has to be specific, meaning, what’s in it for me? Relatives and friends before Facebook (FBFB), however, are exempt from that rule, more on that some other time. Surprised, I told her that LinkedIn is more for professional networking as opposed to Facebook’s personal-relationship orientation. Having recently finished a degree in Information and Computer Engineering, she said she wanted to establish professional contacts, and asked me for advice on a career in IT ? or, as it’s called nowadays, ICT, Information and Communications Technology. Below, edited slightly, and with some additions, is my reply to her. I did warn her that the message could be rather long.

Hi Emily. I’ve also been thinking about what I would do if I were a fresh grad of an IT engineering course. The cool thing is that you have a number of choices, some of them more exciting than others in my opinion. At least two of the more exciting areas are mobile development and the emerging Internet of Things. Mobile development is already big but will get even bigger, since smartphones have started to outsell feature phones. You can choose mainly between Android and Apple’s iOS, the two dominant platforms. iOS (iPhone/iPad) programming can cost a lot at the start because of the cost of the hardware. Apple’s SDK [Software Development Kit], which includes an emulator, runs only on Intel-based Macs, and you’ll probably need at least an i5. Also, your app may languish for a few weeks before it hits the App Store since Apple spends a lot of time vetting apps before posting them for download. For Android, on the other hand, you need only a PC running Windows or some free variant of Unix. The SDK is also a free download, and includes an emulator so you don’t need to buy an Android phone. Your app can be in Google’s Play Store in a matter of days since they don’t examine apps as closely as Apple. Now, if you want to develop for both, you may need an i5-based Mac, so you can develop native iOS apps in addition to Android apps. Actually, you may be better off developing in HTML5, then just writing front ends for iOS and Android ? for that matter, your app should be available on the web as well. This is true of course for those apps that need Internet access. It makes a lot of sense to create a single back end, then create front ends for as many platforms as you want. You can also look into the 54 Mobile App Builders/Services Google Docs spreadsheet. Some of those are free, others charge. As to the Internet of Things, this is a model for devices exchanging data on the Internet with little or no human intervention. Some real products already existing are the FitBit and a shoe from Nike, believe it or not. The FitBit products are either a fob that you clip onto your clothing or a wristband you wear around your… wrist. They monitor your physical activity, namely the number of steps you take each day. They send the results to a computer via BlueTooth, and thence to their Web site so you can monitor your progress. The wristband also monitors the quality of your sleep. The Nike product is Nike+, a shoe come with a sensor that tracks your run and sends the data to your iPod. It even has its own social network and can automatically tweet and post a status report on Facebook and Foursquare. The neat thing is that you don’t have to spend a whole lot of money to develop IoT prototypes. You have the choice of at least three boards: the Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and Beaglebone (I have both an Arduino-compatible and a BeagleBone). Intel has also recently announced their entry into this space with their Galileo board. The Arduino is the barest of them, with an unbelievable 32KB (yup, that’s 32 KILObytes of memory) and no I/O other than the pins.You do have the option to add ?shields? that’ll add USB, WiFi, or Ethernet functionality, among others. You’ll also need sensors, which you’ll need for the other two boards as well, if you want to go beyond blinking LEDs. The (free) Arduino SDK runs in Windows, Mac, or GNU/Linux, so you’ll have to connect the board to your computer via USB. You can also use codebender, a Web-based development environment. The Pi and the BeagleBone are similar in that they come with more powerful processors and more RAM (512MB), but then they’re standalone compared to the Arduino in that you don’t need another computer to develop your prototype. The Bone and Pi also have built-in host USB, Ethernet, HDMI, and SD card reader. Yup, HDMI, so you can connect it to a modern monitor or TV. The Pi has in addition a second USB port and RCA video and audio outputs. On the other hand, the Bone has in addition SD on board, which hosts the default OS. The Bone comes with a version of GNU/Linux (Angstrom) together with Python, Javascript (+Bonescript, which looks a lot like node.js), and you can always download Java and other languages if you want. The Raspberry Pi Foundation recommends Debian, and supports Python and Java. Like the Arduino, you can add hardware to either board. The Beagle’s are called capes, the Pi’s simply expansion boards. These three board are really affordable too. The Beagle is probably the most expensive at $35, but you call that expensive?? The Pi is $25, and a bare Arduino is about $30. The Arduino has a wearable version known as the LilyPad. And yes, it’s washable, although you should remember to remove the battery. Aside from the low cost, the schematics are available online, for free download, so if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can design and develop your own board ? I myself would like to work on other form factors, say something that would line a belt or, in my case, suspenders. OK, you have the choice of mobile app or Internet-of-Things development. I’m more inclined toward IoT, and I think it may make better use of your engineering background. On the other hand, the two need not be mutually exclusive in the sense that a mobile app can be an interface into an IoT setup. Have fun.
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