The demand for programmers trained in Lotus's language is soaring. Kim Thomas looks at the favourite flavour in software
"In the past year, I've doubled my salary," says Paul Edwards, a 26-year old software developer. Mr Edwards hasn't changed jobs or had a big promotion; he has simply switched programming languages.

The firm he works for has trained him in Lotus Notes development and, because of the huge demand for Notes developers, they knew they had to pay the premium or risk losing him.

In the world of software development, not all programming languages are equal. The difference between rates paid to programmers with, say, Cobol skills and rates paid to those with Oracle database or Lotus Notes skills can be huge.

Edwards recognises that he commands a much higher salary than his contemporaries, but he is not the only one. Chris Rosebert, of the Paragon recruitment agency, says: "Two years ago when Notes arrived on the scene, Notes developers were being paid about pounds 20,000 a year. Now it's nearly double that - I've just placed a graduate with two years' experience at pounds 36,000."

Lotus Notes is a groupware product - a series of online document databases which enable people in different locations to view and update the same information. Everyone seems to be using it, says Mr Rosebert: "It's been taken on by systems integration companies, banks, the manufacturing and pharmaceutical sectors. There are far more jobs than we can fill."

Surprisingly, Notes is regarded as easier to learn than other programming skills. "If you're a traditional programmer, Notes is considered a bit of a dirty word," says Mr Edwards. "It's basically a macro language, not a proper programming tool."

Lotus Notes developers are not the only people whose skills are in demand. SAP, a relatively new accountancy package, is increasingly used by financial firms and there is a shortage of people who understand it. Those who do command far higher rates than average. Clive Lewis, of the Kudos recruitment agency, believes that it is less a question of having the technical knowledge than of having the financial know-how. "Lots of SAP specialists are chartered accountants. They're not technical specialists but they understand the business."

Mr Lewis, who deals mainly with the contract market, also finds that developers with an understanding of relational databases, particularly Oracle databases, are highly sought-after: "If you compare, say, a Cobol programmer with an Oracle database administrator you'll find that the administrator could be paid twice as much - probably around pounds 300 or pounds 400 a day."

Jane Watson, an IT manager with a firm of management consultants, agrees: "Oracle is one of the best-paid skills at the moment - it's the flavour of the month. There's also a popular belief that Oracle is more difficult than other relational databases, though this isn't true."

The higher rate paid to people with certain skills doesn't make everyone happy. "One of the reasons firms try to keep salaries secret is that salaries are related to skills rather than grade," says Ms Watson. "I think people understand that, but it doesn't stop them feeling that there's some injustice in it. It's a question of market forces. People get upset about that kind of thing, but they have to be reasonable about it."

She notes, however, the paradox that people with skills in the easier programming languages, such as the fourth-generation databases, are often better-paid than people working with more complex tools. "You can get disgruntled that someone is getting well paid for the high-level stuff, and you're getting badly paid for the more difficult low-level stuff. But it's the market, that's what people want."

Is the best advice, then, for graduates going into software development to concentrate on acquiring the most marketable skills? "Not necessarily," seems to be the answer. Ms Watson thinks that the demand for Lotus Notes is going to fade. "Notes will run out in a while. Firms are already changing much more to the Internet."

Mr Rosebert has also noticed the trend. "We've had a lot of demand for Internet developers in the last six months. That's taking off - most companies will soon want their own Web pages."

Mr Lewis is cautious about advising people to learn a particular skill. "Every so often a new product comes along. It's very short-term - today it's one thing, in five years it will be something else. It's a mistake to home in on one particular product, it's much better to home in on a type of work, such as analysis and design."

Meanwhile, Mr Edwards is aware that he can't afford to be complacent. "I'm going to stick with Notes for a while because the main competing technologies, such as Intranets, are going to take a while to get started. But with the computer world, you've always got to be ahead of the game. I've never stayed with one thing for very long - you've got to be adaptable."