How to get into mobile app development

Dan Mason, Senior editor
September, 2016

From posting photos and playing games to banking, shopping and checking the news, most of us use mobile apps on a daily basis - and the rapid expansion of the industry means there is a shortage of developers with the right skills

'What device do most people use to interact with data, news and each other? A mobile device,' points out Carlton McDonald, deputy head of department (head of computing) and programme leader of MSc Mobile App Development at the University of Derby. 'If you are a mobile app developer your skills are highly sought after.'

That's because so many businesses and organisations from all sectors - whether it's restaurants, travel companies, social media, taxi firms or retailers - have realised that they need a great mobile app if they are to reach their customers.

There is a high demand for mobile app developers in the UK, but there is a significant lack of people with the right skills

'The mobile application industry is booming, and it is expected to continue to grow in the foreseeable future,' says Dr Christos Efstratiou, programme director of the University of Kent's MSc Mobile Application Design. 'There is a high demand for mobile app developers in the UK, but there is a significant lack of people with the right skills.'

In fact the sector skills council, Tech Partnership, found in July 2016 that developer roles account for more than a quarter of all specialist digital jobs advertised - largely as a result of the growth of mobile. You can put yourself in an excellent position to secure one of these jobs by taking postgraduate study in this field.

Who are postgraduate courses for? Dr Cathy French, academic group leader - software development at Staffordshire University says, 'You might have recently gained a degree in computing and want to now specialise in this fast-moving area. Or you might already be doing some app development and want to deepen your knowledge.'

Course content

There are a number of programmes available at UK universities focusing specifically in this area of IT. For example, Carlton explains that the University of Derby's MSc Mobile App Development 'is one of the few courses where you research and develop native apps for both Android and iOS devices as well as web applications, since many people interact with their mobile devices through a browser'.

Modules cover topics including mobile user experience (UX) and emerging architectures, but it's not all about technical or theoretical knowledge; as an app developer you increasingly need business skills too, and on this course you'll have the chance to study the processes and principles required to be a successful entrepreneur. In addition, you can choose to complete either a dissertation or a work placement.

Entry requirements include at least a 2:2 degree in an appropriate subject, although equivalent qualifications in a computing discipline may also be acceptable. Prior programming experience is not essential, says Carlton.

Another option is the MSc Mobile Application Design offered by the University of Kent, which similarly covers programming for iOS (Swift), Android (Java) and the mobile web (HTML5).

'The programme is focused on hands-on mobile app development skills, and the assessment is done purely by coursework, involving a number of mobile apps that students develop during their studies,' says Dr Efstratiou. By the end of the course you will have built a portfolio of at least five apps for iOS and Android, which you can demonstrate to potential employers when you start job-hunting.

Dr Efstratiou adds, 'The course is updated annually to ensure that the content is up to date with the latest developments in mobile technologies. Students are offered the opportunity to develop apps that are directly linked to external industrial clients. This allows them to learn how to interact with industrial partners, and deliver mobile apps that meet their requirements.'

The minimum entry requirement in this case is a 2:2 degree in an engineering, multimedia, scientific or computing discipline. Existing programming skills are highly desirable - if you don't have these from your undergraduate degree, discover what IT training options are available.

Meanwhile, Staffordshire University's MSc Mobile Device Application Development gives you experience of developing apps for different platforms including Android, iOS and Windows Phone, says Dr French. 'You will consider different types of apps - standalone, location-based, clients of web services and key components of enterprise systems. In your dissertation you will choose a specialised research topic to investigate and create a mobile solution for.'

Study options

Studying Masters courses such as these on a full time basis will usually take one year or 18 months. The University of Derby's programme is available part time, but this takes three years. At Staffordshire University you can take the course via distance learning - two years of taught modules and a third year to complete your dissertation.

Elsewhere, the Advanced Professional Diploma in Mobile Device Application Development at Leeds Beckett University takes just one year to complete part time. This is ideal if you are already in work and want to gain a postgraduate qualification in the shortest possible time.

The course seeks to prepare students for a professional role in this fast-paced industry, according to course leader Meg Soosay. 'We offer students possessing good programming capabilities the opportunity to design and develop quality mobile applications for the growing market, teaching you the problems at the forefront of app development and how to overcome them,' she says.

'Students will explore both the WYSIWYG environment and coding approaches to development, building a broad skill base. The two approaches will lead students towards the development of native apps, providing the basis for an analysis of the strengths of the two platforms.'

This programme is designed to maximise the potential for those already in the industry to update or redirect their skills. There are two modules: mobile application development and mobile games prototyping.

'Students have the opportunity to explore methods, models, tools and techniques required to generate mobile content and build mobile applications, with sophisticated interfaces using the very latest interactive technologies and frameworks,' adds Meg.

Search for postgraduate IT courses to find more mobile app development programmes.

Career prospects

All of these courses will leave you well prepared to find a job in app development. 'A career in mobile application development and design opens a range of job opportunities, from joining a major software company to working as an independent developer or starting your own company focusing on an innovative mobile app,' suggests Dr Efstratiou. Search for jobs in IT to see what's available.

Dr French adds, 'On completion you may aspire to publish your own apps as an indie developer, or go into the computing industry where mobile development skills are in high demand.'

But there are alternatives. For instance, Carlton notes that the University of Derby course, while focused primarily on developing mobile entrepreneurs, also provides research opportunities so that those who complete it can pursue a research or academic career by doing a PhD in a related discipline.

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