E-commerce market growth: what kinds of job-change opportunities is it creating for IT professionals?
IT practice used to be rigidly demarcated, and techies who crossed the line between software and hardware, say, or datacoms and telecoms, were rarities. The job offers fewer such specialisms nowadays, but opportunities to move careers toward emerging categories of computing still appear.
E-commerce - aka selling online or 'e-tailing' - could be showing the kind of rapid growth that creates premium employment opportunities for technologists looking to take their career into a more rewarding direction.
E-commerce started to happen within months of the emergence of the public Internet, but this honeymoon period of several years was sundered by the dotcom crash of 2001, when most casualties were online retailers (or their creditors). The reputation of designers and builders of e-commerce systems - both the 'shopfront-ends' and the 'back-end' fulfillment platforms which, naturally, should be seamlessly integrated - came in for criticism, blamed for raising unrealistic expectations in respect to website performance that deterred potential Web shoppers.
The industry learned much from its mistakes, and e-commerce systems were built better, with greater consideration of 'customer experience'. E-tailing was helped into recovery when supermarkets started to construct Web-based home delivery models, tagged 'online ordering'. The Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 did much to tighten up the law around online retailing. The online marketplace's recovery was abetted by the rise of broadband.
Online retail sales in western Europe reached £68bn in 2009, and are forecast by analyst Forrester to grow to £114bn by 2014. This growth is driving demand for the technologists who can build and support e-commerce systems; but e-commerce has evolved beyond the core enabling technology that such systems run on.
'Companies are more confident than they were 12 months ago, and are actively recruiting within their IT departments, particularly in e-commerce where we are seeing continued high demand as companies look to boost their Web presence,' comments Matthew Iveson, director of recruitment firm CV Screen. 'We are seeing greater mobility in the market as IT professionals have the confidence to seek new roles which offer career prospects, and in many cases, higher salaries.'
Iveson says that this upward trend has been shown over the last 12 months by demand for Web-development skills, in particular experience of PHP expertise (PHP (personal home page): Hypertext Preprocessor; this is a scripting language originally designed for Web development to produce dynamic web pages). There is also continual high demand for candidates with Java and .NET skills, Iveson adds; he also reports a big rise in the number of jobs requiring search-engine optimisation (SEO) know-how.
One important concomitant of this trend, Iveson adds, is that it is not just technical skills that employers want: '[Our clients] are really looking for techies who can put an e-commerce website together, but who can combine Web development with online marketing competences.'
So what range skills are being added to the e-commerce mix? Speaking to website 'TopMBA' in January 2010, Clive Ellings of trade show E-commerce Expo said that developing an e-commerce platform is 'not about simple questions such as 'how do I find a payment processing system?' It's more like 'how do I reorientate the business to manage a totally different, high-volume sales channel which affects every aspect of the business, from back-office accounting systems to customer service call-centres to logistics, service, warranty, etc.?' This interconnectedness creates project scenarios suited to technologists bored with comfort zones, who maybe even view a move toward e-commerce as a step away from IT altogether.
Generalised qualifications for e-commerce professionals do exist - in April 2009 a Postgraduate Internet Retailing Diploma was launched by Manchester Metropolitan University in partnership with training firm Econsultancy - but CV Screen's Matthew Iveson thinks that the ability to show a solid portfolio of successful past website development can be sufficient to clinch a job.
Andy Houstoun - global head of marketing at on-demand e-commerce provider Venda - insists that there is no doubt that e-commerce specialists have been compelled to broaden their knowledge of the dynamics driving their sector by commercial imperatives: 'E-commerce used to be a satellite to the main business, but that model has been superseded by developments in technology that are conditioning consumer habits,' he says. 'Single-channel consumers who approach the act of online purchasing through only one route are now few and far between. Now, consumers may use the Web to research a potential purchase, then buy it at a high-street store, or find what they want at stores and then make the purchase online. They may use mobile devices to check customer reviews in-store before buying either over the counter, or online when they return home.' Merchants have to facilitate these purchasing patterns in order to fulfil the sale, and e-commerce technicians need to be on top of how all these different media co-exist in order to stay ahead.
These developments have intensified pressure on the e-commerce operations department to deliver value to the business, and play a leading role maintaining trading levels.
Retailers have moved a much greater proportion of their sales and marketing efforts online. There has also been great emphasis on turning the online shopping experience into 'customer journeys', where would-be shoppers are able to use retailers sites to learn much more collateral information about the products and services that they are interested in, but also be informed about other related items that they may also be tempted to buy. So-called 'recommender software' - that displays related products or those that other customers who share your tastes have also bought - contains some of the most sophisticated software engineering.
Venda's Andy Houstoun points out that e-commerce technicians not only now have to acquire a better understanding of non-technical elements like marketing, they also need to be more savvy about what the competition is doing. 'We encourage our technologists to keep an eye on our clients' competitors' strategies,' he says. 'Unlike IT managers in most enterprises, who may only respond to competitive issues indirectly, it is imperative that an online retail site, say, does not lag behind what its rivals are doing in terms of features and functionality.
'Another hugely pervasive impact has been the use of social networking sites to share information and recommendations about products and services. Social media has also compelled online retailers to become proactive and start using social networks directly as an adjunct of their core sales and marketing activity. This has pulled e-commerce techies directly into the front line, because social media is technology, and as techies, they are supposed to understand its workings, and so advise the business on a responsive strategy.'