"X" Marks the Spot

His "son" might have been a bit unwieldy, but it helped to change the world. These days, Charles Goldfarb is just as happy boasting about his grandchild.

His "son" might have been a bit unwieldy, but it helped to change the world. These days, Charles Goldfarb is just as happy boasting about his grandchild.

Were not talking offspring in the human sense here. Goldfarb, the former IBM lawyer who invented Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), is touting the virtues of XML, the Extensible Markup Language that was culled from the rather dense SGML.

Goldfarb likes to consider XML his grandkid and is pleased to see the world embracing it. In fact, he and others involved in the expanding universe of XML say the skys the limit for people who learn the ins and outs of the language and for the companies where they work.

Thats no small statement at a time when tech companies are laying off employees by the thousands. "The bottom has certainly fallen out of the dot-com companies who had a clever idea but no business model, no revenues and not much hope of getting any," says Goldfarb. "But that was never the primary use of XML."

Instead, XML is seeping deeper into the fabric of industry on many fronts, broadening the reach of traditional Electronic Document Interchange (EDI) by allowing all of a companys business partners—not just those who can afford traditional EDI over private networks—to participate in doc- ument sharing.

Alex Ceponkus, the technical lead around Web services standards at Web services company Bowstreet, also says XML professionals are not being seriously harmed by the slumping economy. "I dont see a lot of jobs dwindling because of the downturn," he says. "Theres a lot going on. ... Theres just a tremendous need for generic XML skills."

Ceponkus asserts there are companies "just dying for XML people," and he says Bowstreet is regularly "flooded with technical recruiter e-mails" for XML wizards, particularly those who have worked on an XML project.

One such recruiter, Anthony Cohens at Raging Mouse.com, acknowledges many of the jobs hes filling require XML proficiency. "Its really hot," says Cohens. "For savvy XML guys, theres always going to be a job out there."

Gaining XML knowledge can add a good 10 percent to a programmers paycheck.

An informal [email protected] Partner survey found that people with XML skills but little experience can earn about $55,000 and—lack of experience notwithstanding—are often billed out at $150 per hour for XML jobs. The high priests of XML, oozing with experience and know-how, can easily earn $110,000 per year and are billed out at upward of $300 per hour.

Not everybody is convinced that memorizing every page of Goldfarbs thick XML books—or the myriad others on bookstore shelves—is the real important part of an XML career. Rita Knox, Gartner Groups XML expert, contends XML skills are actually a bit overrated.

"XML is a data description," she says. "The hard thing about data description is figuring out what you want to represent." More and more, says Knox, XML tools are being offered that make the marking up easy. What enterprises really need are people who know what tools are available (and how to use them) but also are skilled at delving deep into the corporate structure and determining what data needs XML representation.

"Companies Im talking to now ... are more concerned with how they exchange information between each other and what the data elements are," she says. Prospective XML-related employees "need to be able to talk to businesspeople: the marketing department, the production part of the company, the client-relationship management people, and say, What kind of information do you want to grab?"

XML Globals Lawell Kiing says Knox has a point, but might be underestimating the value of people knowing the guts of XML. "Even though tools are coming out now, were still in the very early stages of them," he says. "So, having the ability to successfully manage XML is still, I believe, very important. ... Ive been a programmer for 13 years, and I use tons of tools. ... But if you dont know what youre doing, no tool is going to rescue you."

Given that XML is being injected into almost every new product being offered by IBM, Microsoft and others big names in the industry, Kiing asserts XML is about to skyrocket. "A lot of companies are no longer sitting on the sidelines, but are now putting their feet in," he says.

At Architag International, an XML education company, director of operations Gene Yong says the number of people signing up to learn the language has been increasing since 1998.

"Over the last two years, weve seen quite an increase in the interest in XML," he says. "Weve seen a lot of people coming in to initially take the introductory courses and a lot of companies are requesting introductory training classes. They want their people to be at least educated in that subject matter. Yong says the class enrollments at Architag have grown 40 percent to 50 percent each year since 1998, driven mainly by the World Wide Web Consortiums release of new XML specifications.

Dave Elliot, owner of the Web Academy, which offers XML training for Web developers, says many large companies—instead of hiring externally—are training existing workers. Nevertheless, noting that "probably 90 percent of all the people using the Web have browsers that support XML," he says anybody who can find the time to learn the language should take the plunge.

As Goldfarb observes, "Right now, its still a rare skill, but the growth of XML books and training courses show the demand is out there."