reWorking Michigan: Smart Phone App Development On The Rise

Jul 9, 2012

A growing number of people carrying smart phones means companies that develop apps need to find skilled employees. People filling those jobs in Michigan are staying in the state, or even moving back to Michigan.

While working on her masters degree thesis, Emily Brozovic got an idea for a smart phone app. She calls it People Like Me.

It’s designed to give the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered community and their allies information supporting LGBT-friendly businesses. Her app isn’t just for the dating scene.

“So for example, the little restaurant in town that someone frequents because both they and their partner are treated well, if they have friends that are LGBT that come into town, they’re going to recommend that restaurant, just because of how well they’re treated," Brozovic explains. "The intention of the app is to put that out there for others as well.”

Reviews could cover anything: doctors, grocery stores, florists, you name it. A GPS-enabled phone could tell you how close you are to the business and how to get there.

For Brozovic, People Like Me has evolved from an academic exercise into what could become a real, available app, and maybe even one that turns a profit.

Associate professor of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media at Michigan State University Brian Winn says “app development is one of the hottest things right now.”

For the second summer in a row, he’s offering a special topics course in mobile app development. Right now, he has about ten students, a smallish number he says isn’t unusual for an offering in a new technology.

Winn says employers are looking for anybody who can show they have skills in app development.

“Somebody coming out with a couple of apps under their belt, maybe apps up on the app store where they can point to successes, would help them greatly in landing employment," Winn states. "I know there’s a few companies in town that do app development, and they’re constantly looking for qualified people to add to their team.”

One of those companies is Gravity Works Design & Development. They got their start in East Lansing’s Technology Innovation Center three years ago. Now, they have a staff of 12 growing into a space on North Washington Avenue in Old Town Lansing.

Partner and Director of Development Jeff McWherter says 30 percent of their work now is on projects for Apple, Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone 7 devices.  He recently hired two new developers and a designer.

“One fellow that we hired grew up in Michigan, and he went off to Chicago. We were able to pull him back out of Chicago, get him back here," McWherter says. "We’re looking at Michigan State. We’re looking at local community groups like the greater Lansing .NET users group. We’re very active in the community, and it’s easier to hire somebody that we already know.”

McWherter says the key to landing a job is passion, passion for the work and passion for what amounts to continuing education.

“You can’t get into being a programmer and think that you’re never going to have to read anything else again," McWherter continues. "At our company, we have over 300 books. We’re very active with sending people to conferences, having them read. We have an internal news group where our employees are sending links out constantly: learn this, learn this! Just great, great value in learning, and if you don’t want to learn, it’s definitely not a career for you.”

Emily Brozovic’s background is in graphic design and photography, but her People Like Me project has her considering smart phone app development in her future.

“I would like to continue to grow in this field, and this idea of design thinking and design problem solving, and I’m open to whatever realm that takes.”

As schools add app development classes, and as companies like Gravity Works expand, mobile app development could become an increasingly important part of Michigan’s push for high tech jobs.

ReWorking Michigan examines our evovling economy, as citizens of the Great Lake State explore new ways to make a living and build a future. A project of WKAR NewsRoom, WKAR-TV and WKAR Online.