Jordi Delgado had to get used to the jibes. His friends rarely resisted the opportunity to tease him about his choice of career -- or the car he drove.
"As soon as they had finished school, they went to work on building sites and they were making big money," he says. "And at that time I was in university, with very little money. They were driving new BMWs; I had an old Seat Ibiza."
Today, Delgado, who's from Valencia in Spain, is having the last laugh. "I chose a career that had lots of potential. We all know what has happened to the construction industry."
The 30-year-old is an IT programmer at Storm Technology in the heart of Dublin. He has been with the company since December last year and, come March, his wife will join him in Ireland as soon as their baby is born.
He is happy here -- as well he might be. Ireland's IT sector is booming. His salary is excellent -- certainly, much higher than he could hope to command back home. And with the cost of living in Dublin dropping ever closer to Spanish levels, his money is stretching much further than it did in 2005 when he first visited Ireland.
It is conservatively estimated that there are 1,500 vacancies in the sector in Ireland right now. Despite this, firms are struggling to find people with the requisite qualifications and experience. Remarkably, in an environment of 14pc unemployment -- some 450,000 people out of work -- this thriving, fast-growing industry has considerable difficulty filling positions whose pay and perks average around the €55,000 mark. That's the best part of €20,000 more than the average industrial wage.
Top software engineers can command €100,000, but there aren't enough of them to go around. The situation is so grave that next Thursday, Enterprise Ireland will lead a delegation of indigenous tech companies to Madrid in the hope of luring the best Spanish computing minds to Ireland.
Last week, Enterprise Ireland launched a new campaign, 'IT's Happening Here', which -- it is hoped -- will raise awareness among school-leavers about the potential of IT, and encourage some of those people on the dole to undertake training courses to put them on the road to a career in the industry. Furthermore, the itshappeninghere.ie website has posted hundreds of jobs and offers a simple one-click applications process.
"A campaign like this is badly needed," says Jarlath Dooley, chair of the industry advisory group behind the initiative. "It can be extremely difficult to find the right people and much of that is down to the fact that during the boom years, school-leavers opted to pursue careers that were linked to property and construction. Quick money, glamour -- you name it. That's where all the focus was. You had parents advising their children to go into certain professions, to be architects, solicitors. People forgot about IT and that's why there is such a shortage of suitable candidates today."
Dooley is the director of Version 1, a company that supplies IT solutions for clients such as the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Foreign Affairs. Business is growing fast, especially as companies are seeing the cost-benefit reasons for outsourcing their IT requirements. Several vacancies are available, and Dooley, like so many other Irish tech executives, is having to spread the net beyond Ireland.
"Finding the right people is one of the biggest challenges facing this industry right now," he says. "And it's expensive too. If you use the recruitment companies you might end up paying €10,000 per person, so we've a reward referral system in place where any Version 1 staff member can recommend a potential employee from among their contacts. If that person is taken on, then the employee gets a bonus of between €1,500 and €3,000. We find this works very well."
Dubliners Darina Prior and Olivia Carroll (who is pictured on the front page) and Wicklow's Riceal McDermott are among the Version 1 workforce and are proof, if it's needed, that software development is not a chiefly male domain.
"Women are in the minority in this sector," Prior (32) says, "and that shouldn't be the case. Traditionally, IT was seen as a male-specific career and often people had a very narrow perception of what that kind of work it entailed. There's still the image of the geek in the corner, but the reality is an ever-changing profession that requires communications and problem-solving skills, as well as tech skills."
Carroll (36) a team leader at Version 1, points out that tech employers tend to be more flexible about working from home -- a quality with much appeal for young parents like her. "I enjoy working in an office environment," she says, "but I'm based at home one day a week and that really suits me."
McDermott (38) feels she enjoys the sort of job security that many of her friends in other fields simply don't have. "IT doesn't feel like it's going through a recession," she says. "There are so many opportunities in this sector and if you have the relevant skills and experience, you're really in demand. I feel very fortunate that this is the career I pursued, especially when you look around you and see the hardships that people in other professions are experiencing at present."
Over at Storm Technologies, Áine Hanly (30) from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, also feels fortunate that she chose software development as a profession. "I've always had a mechanical mind and loved science and maths at school," she says. "And it was while studying for a general science degree at Maynooth that I gravitated towards IT. Now that the recession looks like staying here for some time, I realise how lucky I am to work in this sector, especially when I look at people like my sister, who's an architect, and see how tough the last few years have been for her."
Ronan O'Halloran (36) is client relationship manager at Storm and says his life changed the day he walked into a FÁS office on Baggot Street in Dublin 16 years ago. "I had done an arts degree at Maynooth," he says, "and wasn't sure what career I wanted. The guy at FÁS said I'd be mad not to do the six-month IT course they were offering and it was the best decision I ever made."
O'Halloran, whose CV includes stints at Accenture, Dell and Microsoft, speaks about Ireland's IT industry with evangelical zeal. "It's such an exciting environment to work in," he says. "IT is now an essential component of all businesses and services and has become so all-encompassing that it should be called something else. And the old image of nerds in the back office -- propagated by the likes of The IT Crowd (a TV sitcom) -- is laughably wide of the mark.
"The great pity is that more didn't consider going into this sector in the past 10 years or so because now there's such a stark skills shortage. For so long, finance and banking were seen as the cornerstones of the economy, and IT was seen as the poor relation. With the exception of my brother, I didn't know anyone else who went into this industry when I did."
Karl Flannery, Storm's founder and CEO, believes the dotcom crash of the early 2000s had a detrimental effect on how the sector is perceived. "And that perception persisted long after the industry had recovered," he says. "Don't forget that in the 1990s, IT had really captured the imagination of school-leavers and a lot of graduates were coming through.
"Hopefully, campaigns like IT's 'Happening Here' and 'Smart Futures' (initiated by, among others, the Irish Software Association, which Flannery heads) will encourage a whole new generation to join this sector. The future depends on it."
There are signs that the situation will have improved markedly in the next couple of years as a wave of graduates -- some of whom have returned to study after being made redundant in other professions -- come on stream. But in a fast-changing sector like IT, the difficulties recruiting the right people remain severe.
Just ask Hugh McCarthy, IT manager at Brightwater Recruitment: "There are many companies, from large technology powerhouses to small indigenous start-ups, who are struggling to find qualified IT resources. Software engineers such as Enterprise Java developers, Microsoft C# developers, C++ developers, PHP and Ruby developers are in very high demand.
"Demand is outstripping supply and as a result, IT is one of the only professional areas where there is discernible upward momentum on salaries. To give you an example of what the right people can command, a software architect with eight-plus years' experience can get €75,000 to €85,000. And most companies will offer performance-related bonuses, pension, healthcare, and so on."
Jason Keogh, founder of iQuate, believes a small coterie of top software personnel are in such demand that they can effectively name their price. Even though he is an employer who also struggles to fill key positions, he feels that nobody should begrudge such people enjoying the spoils of their labours.
"I was talking to a friend of mine in this industry and mentioned to him that I felt sorry for all those building workers and electricians who are now out of work. And you know what he said? 'Screw them. When we were putting our heads down and studying for years and building up experience, they were making a fortune.' I guess it's a very different story now."