College coders working with IBM's Project Zero

Students at North Carolina State University are learning to build business applications in the Web 2.0 mold using an IBM incubator project called Project Zero.

Announced last year, Project Zero is a programming framework for rapidly building Web applications. Its pieces include a scripting runtime for Groovy and PHP (hypertext preprocessor), two hot dynamic languages, along with APIs (application programming interfaces) for creating REST (representational state transfer) Web services, user interfaces and mashups, according to IBM. It is available as a plug-in for the Eclipse integrated development environment, as well as in a version for developers who prefer to work from the command line.

However, the project has faced some criticism, because although its community-driven model echoes open source, it is not an open-source project. Mark Hanny, vice president of strategic partnerships at IBM, said a commercial version of Project Zero could surface soon.

James Governor, an analyst with Redmonk, suggested it makes sense for IBM to embrace newer development methods in its work with schools.

"IBM doesn't want to be your father's IBM, it wants to be your son's," he said.

There is significant demand in the job market for such skills, according to IBM. Citing statistics from Skillproof, a research firm in Connecticut, IBM said the number of U.S. job openings for IT professionals grew 45.2 percent between 2004 and the end of last year. Knowledge of open standards and Web 2.0 development skills were in particularly high demand, according to IBM.

NCSU Professor Munindar Singh said Project Zero's rapid development framework has helped students focus on higher-level issues around application development, rather than trudge at length through the deep weeds.

His students generally enter the courses having learned some Java, created Web pages and done some scripting, but usually lack experience at the plumbing level, the professor said.

"Spending a lot of time just trying to configure an application server to do stuff for them is such a waste of time," he said. "That's something the tool should be doing for them. ... The higher up they are in the food chain, the more creative they're going to be."

According to Hanny, the IT world's needs are changing.

"Professors are spending a lot more time helping people at a higher level to be the architect, to be the project managers," he said. "These are the jobs that are in great demand."

"IT is much broader. It's pervasive," he added. "Some of the training is not even going on in computer science; some of it is going on in business schools."

Meanwhile, IBM and the University of California-Los Angeles previously created a program within one computer science course that sees students choose their own Web 2.0 project and then work with IBM mentors to complete it.

Jeffrey Tan, a UCLA senior from Palo Alto, California, built a mashup called Bounce along with two classmates. It leveraged the Facebook API along with listings from the Eventful event aggregator and maps from Google Maps. Tan's contributions focused on the application's front end.

IBM officials served more as sounding boards than as direct teachers, he said. For example, the students would write a specification document for a Web site and send it to technical staffers at IBM, who would provide advice and feedback, such as what APIs to use, he said.

Tan hopes to find a career building Web sites and "managing back-end, server-side stuff."

"I just interviewed for a job, and almost all I talked about are these major Web 2.0 technologies," he said. "Basically, Web 2.0 is replacing the old Web."

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