The USA Economy and Flex

I’ve briefly kept tabs on the blogs the past few months, and only rarely seen a post discussing the economy. Like Carrie says, if you want to write well, write about what you know.  My guess is, we don’t have many economists/software developers/designers blogging on AXNA, or linking to others who match that criteria. I’ve seen a couple over at O’Reilly Radar which didn’t really help in understanding the future.  I’ve seen the posts Techcrunch did about investment firms tightening their budgets, lay offs at prominent west coast tech companies (+ the contrasting new companies who’ve raised funding), and author analysis of what it all means. The only point I can glean from those posts is that it’ll be harder for startups out west to garner funding, thus reducing the amount of new startups that can get their ideas (good or dumb) off the ground faster.

I’m not an economist, but here’s what I do know about my past since the bust as well as what will be a future set of metrics to measure where we’re at.

The majority of job offers, both W2 and contract, in 2003 & 2004 came from big to mid-size companies.  The smaller shops got in the game later in 2004, and in 2005.  In 2006, I was inundated with start ups offering Flash & Flex work, both because that was the peak of the Web 2.0 bubble, and because towards the end of the year I specifically sought them out.  The majority of my income the past 3 years has come from either service work, meaning build a piece of software for someone, or consulting which is usually helping someone else build something for someone.  I’ve only garnered income from 2 startups in those past 3 years, and it is a really small percentage of my total income.  This year is the first year where a large portion of my income has come from a startup.  So, while I do enjoy working for startups, it isn’t my primary client.  Most startups don’t contract out work out anyway, at least in the beginning, because they want to keep their ideas close to their chest, and have a tight knit team on-site.  If, however, they have a specific portion they can clearly define later in their product life-cycle that they can outsource, this is the perfect type of work for me.  What this means for the community is even if you’re an out of work Flex person, which still boggles my mind how you could know Flex AND not be employed (email me if this is the case), you’ll still have potential opportunities from startups even if they are keeping cash tight and they believe you capable.

Traditionally, work offers come in spurts, a bunch of offers at once, at specific times of the year.  Those are February which is light, March which is insane, May which is light, August which is insane, and then from there it’s random (although December typically is about as dry as June and July).  I have theories about why these specific months produce work, but nothing worthwhile.  Either people get their act together with plans and a budget at the beginning of the year, and/or do it again right after the US summer vacation. Bottom line is, March and August are great metrics for “how is the industry fairing”, both contracting and for full-time.

A sign economic times are “turning around for the better” is when companies start contracting out work again.  Right now, they are contracting out & hiring like crazy, and this started in 2003 for me, so a lot of companies, at least for the past 2 months, have not been visibly affected by the economic turmoil.  If the work stops or slows in March and/or August of next year, 2009, then clearly they are affected.

Finally, through my consulting, I’ve seen Flex starting to mature.  Meaning, even the big companies are adopting it now.  While Flex 1 in 2004 was extremely fun, it was niche as hell.  Only the most daring (or sales duped) Enterprises were doing Flex work.  In 2006, Flex 2 road the waves of the Web 2.0 hype and was poised very well to get entrenched.  For example, back then, I was doing a lot of explaining of what Flex is to the bigger companies, whereas now, I’m no longer explaining what Flex is, but rather, how the SDK internals work.  This shows that both big and small companies are doing cool work with Flex, and naturally we’re all anxiously awaiting better work flows with Thermo and Flex 4… well, those that give a flip about design, that is.  So, while some still feel they need to fight the Flex “and” AJAX battle during client engagements, there is enough companies out there who “get it” now, so evangelizing your choice of platform is the least of your problems.

One particular problem that continually plagues Flex, even to this day, is the lack of qualified hybrids.  Any software developer can learn Flex; Flex is easy.  It was created specifically for traditional software developers, and is doing a great job of providing easy access to these teams.  However, Flex runs on the Flash Player.  As many who read this blog know, Flash Player is NOT just a runtime engine; it’s a multimedia platform.  The 3 main touted features in Flash Player 10 having nothing to do with software development; they are media centric features (3D, visual & audio filters written in Hydra, and dynamic audio).  While there are many specialist software developers in the world of media, not many do it all.

Even worse, many either haven’t had any experience in design agencies, nor any type of animation or video compositing work flows.  This results in a lot of software developers who have powers they don’t know how to use.  This problem is exacerbated by the even worse availability of qualified User Experience, Interaction Designers, and/or Information Architects.  Usually those types of individuals can compensate for the software developers’ lack of design background by forcing them to model their software after the UE’s desired user experience, sometimes using a designer to help visualize the vision.

I’m not really sure what Adobe can do to solve this.  On a call with them last week, I suggested “more training”… but that was because I was caught off guard and had no clue.  I don’t know if that’ll solve it.  For example, as you may have seen reading various blogs, Flex 4 + Thermo, combined with multi-Adobe tool support of the FXG graphics format is shaping up to really help with a lot of work flow problems.  I’d argue, however, that very few have the multi-discipline competency needed to really push the envelope of a lot of Flex projects.  Meaning, they are comfortable taking a Photoshop PSD or Fireworks PNG design comp, and converting it into a nicely looking, and nice working, visual interface in Flex.  Then, they turn around and architect a large Flex app with those converted designs in it using Cairngorm or PureMVC, parse an image from a ByteArray, and finally debug why H264 videos are giving weird NetStream status messages compared to Spark and On2 ones.  Now, from a business perspective, this isn’t too bad.  A lot of Flex apps are extremely successful behind the firewall with simple interfaces, and while it’d be nice to have a designer and UE person lay the funk to blow it out of the water, clearly Flex is succeeding in the web browser where Java failed… a lot of those Flex clients hitting Java back-ends.

What this means is, I’m still seeing a lot of teams needing Flex developers who have backgrounds in Flash and/or a more design centric background.  So, even if things tank, if you have this background you’re still extremely valuable.

Finally, if you’re in a country where your currency isn’t as strong as the US Dollar, or have a tradition in outsourcing (Cost Rica, India… Australia?  haha, sorry Geoff, you said it not me), this is another positive as companies who try to save money outsource projects they’d traditionally do in the US.  Even if our dollar continues to lower in value, a lot of the outsourcing work I’ve seen is for shorter term goals of cutting costs vs. longer term.

In conclusion, if you know Flex, and next year things are bad, I believe you’ll be thinking to yourself how lucky you are that you know Flex and others who have work know that you know Flex.  Additionally, come April 2009, I’ll have a better understanding how things really are in the tech sphere.

10 Replies to “The USA Economy and Flex”

  1. I just stumbled upon this blog and article today, but from reading this article, I totally feel on the same page with you Jesse. These observations are exactly what I have observed the past couple of months too. I’m excited about the continuing Flex boom and hype, and I, too, believe that it’s not going to die down. Also, check out this video by Gary Vaynerchuk if you haven’t seen it yet, regarding who exactly he thinks is really going to die down in the next few years :) http://tinyurl.com/3wh4xd

  2. I’ve been doing flex for a few years now and after a long time consulting I decided last spring to settle in and find a ‘real job.’
    It took no time at all and although I had to go a little out of my area (I’m in the Philadelphia area, most jobs were around NY) the offers I was getting were incredible compared to what I was being offered for general multi-language full time web development.

    It’s a good time to be a Flex developer – as long as you really know your stuff.

  3. I think you bring up a good point about some more traditional Flex developers not fully understanding their medium.

    For me I see a few things that could happen: 1) the market will continue to evolve and developers will become more and more specialized or 2) more and more companies will want “creative” developers and those traditional developers will either need to evolve or risk extinction.

    I’m not really sure adobe needs to do anything since a good Flex dev can support Flash/Flex content and likewise for a good Flash dev supporting flex content.

    In general, I think we are seeing a shift in the industry toward more creative / interactive apps due in part to the mainstream acceptance of video games. Because of that, I think our industry (web dev not Flash) is going to more closely resemble the “stateful client” game industry.

    economy wise, this is a lot different then the dot-bomb. That is about as qualified as an observation I can make.

    -erik

  4. Good article. Though, keep in mind, you’re one person–and quite capable. I guess my point is that it’s just one perspective. I think you’re right on as far as the state of the users of Flex but as for the demand, that’s a hard thing to judge from just one person’s perspective.

    I’m not sure that Adobe needs to do anything to help create more capable users. They’re doing a lot. But, for comparison, look at all the crazy Ajax stuff people are doing…. that’s with no big company help. It’s got to be one of the hardest things I can imagine but people are doing it to satisfy a demand (no doubt that side of the industry has its own issues).

    My take on the whole dot-bomb 2.0 is that as a individual it’s easier to weather the storm. Plus, there’s always some way to make money. I hear you can make some bucks doing plumbing.

  5. “A sign economic times are “turning around for the better” is when companies start contracting out work again.”

    I’m not sure I agree with this. Subcontractors / vendors fall under a different budget line item than employees. As the economy goes south, a lot of [public] companies let people go (because Wall Street thinks that is good). However, the work still needs to be done so they shift around the money to vendors / contractors. It gives such companies more favorable annual reports.

    That is why consulting companies tend to thrive in a down economy.

    Of course, I can’t being to speculate how the actions of private companies parallel public companies. As a business owner, I’ve had slow times and busy times. I can’t attribute either directly to the economy, though.

  6. Hi,
    I’m based in Paris and at least here things are showing no signs of slowing down in the Flash/Flex department.
    As for the hybrids thing: hybrids are in short supply everywhere, but being a hybrid is also difficult because it makes you hard to put in a category. What Adobe could do is improve the workflow between the developers and designers, because these 2 separate profiles will always exist in the foreseeable future. At the moment very little is done along those lines. A few open source projects try to address this, but there’s still a long way to go.
    Ariel

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