Software developers today, by the numbers: 4 takeaways

What makes IT stars tick? New data shows what developers want to learn – and shape – in today’s enterprise
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If your mental image of a developer is of someone who simply writes code all day, it’s time to adjust your picture.

That’s one of several key takeaways from the 15th edition of analyst firm Slashdata’s “Developer Economics: State of the Developer Nation” report.

The firm surveyed 20,500 professional software developers around the globe during Q2 of this year; its ongoing tracking of developer experiences and attitudes typically includes more than 40,000 devs each year. The most recent survey reveals or reinforces several key storylines about the modern software developer’s day-to-day job and future career path.

[ What IT roles are employers hiring remote workers to fill? Read our related article: 6 top work-from-home jobs for IT professionals. ]

We mined the report for some of the most interesting numbers and trends. For IT leaders, this is also a chance to check in on what makes your development teams tick. Moreover, some of these takeaways are well worth considering from a recruiting and retention strategy. If you’re trying to bring top talent on board without offering real opportunities for ongoing learning and skills development, for example, you’re doing it wrong.

1. Devs want to learn new skills and disciplines – not just new languages

The survey suggests that developers as a whole embrace the career wisdom that continuous learning is a must for long-term success. But what devs are most interested in learning isn’t what you might expect.

45 percent of devs want to acquire machine learning/data science skills during the coming year.

Machine learning/data science ranked as the number one skill area that devs want to learn or improve in during the coming year, with 45 percent of survey respondents checking it off.

(Those two things aren’t necessarily one and the same, but the report offers an indirect explanation for their pairing here: “The analysis of very large datasets is now made possible and, more importantly, affordable to most due to the emergence of cloud computing, open-source data science frameworks, and Machine Learning as a Service (MLaaS) platforms. As a result, the interest of the developer community in the field is growing steadily.”)

This reflects the booming job market for qualified data scientists – the job-search site Glassdoor currently lists it #1 on its 50 Best Jobs in America list, with a median base salary of $110,000. It also speaks to a trend toward more interdisciplinary roles and career paths in IT, boosted by the intentional break-down of team silos – via DevOps and other factors.

“As organizations continue to harness the power of big data, the demand for data scientists will keep increasing and their role will become more diverse and complex,” the Developer Economics report reads. “Data scientists live in the intersection of coding, mathematics, and business and, therefore, they need to possess a mixture of technical and soft skills as well as have domain specific knowledge.”

The rest of the top five skill areas of interest similarly suggest that software developers aren’t just code jockeys who spend 100 percent of their time programming:

  • #2: UI design (33 percent of devs said they want to learn or improve in this area)
  • #3: Cloud-native development/containers & microservices (25 percent)
  • #4: Project management (24 percent)
  • #5: DevOps (23 percent)

You have to scan all the way to #8 on the list to find “a new programming language” – 17 percent of the devs surveyed checked it off. That ranked just behind the “business/marketing skills” (18 percent) at #7.

“Developers seem to be seeking out complementary skills instead of self-improvement in their field of expertise,” the report says. The authors later acknowledge that the areas most would consider core to a dev’s area of expertise, such as learning a new language, platform, or web technology, all rank relatively low in relation to other disciplines or to hot technologies such as containers.

[ Read our related article, Microservices and containers: 6 things to know at start time. ]

“Whatever their motive for learning new skills is, developers are among the earliest adopters of new technologies and the ones who will drive change and innovation with their ideas,” they write.

2. Devs have some influence over tools – but is it enough?

While most devs don’t have the final say in tools and other purchase decisions, they do increasingly have an influence on those who do: 71 percent of software developers have at least some say in its organization’s buying decisions about tools and software components. (“Some” is the operative word, and doesn’t necessarily mean they actually get to make recommendations; it could mean, for example, that they’re involved in determining specifications.) On the flip side, just under one in five devs (18 percent) report that they are not involved at all in purchasing; the other 11 percent say their firms aren’t buying third-party tools or components.

The report notes this is quite a shift from the days of yore when enterprise IT pros would almost inevitably be at the mercy of a purchasing or procurement department.

While the report is relatively optimistic about developer input into tooling and components, how this plays out for teams is likely very context-specific. For example, the percentage of devs who aren’t involved at all in selection and purchasing goes up in larger organizations, peaking at 30 percent in companies with 5,001-10,000 employees (and dipping back to 28 percent in companies with more than 10,000 people.)

In general, developer influence over third-party tooling ebbs a bit as company size increases. For example, 53 percent of devs get to make recommendations in companies with under 5,000 employees; that dips to 47 percent for companies with more than 5,000 people.

It’s good news that roughly half of developers have input into their tool selection - but it means roughly half do not.

This is also a potential half-full or half-empty glass scenario: It’s good news that roughly half of developers have input into their tool selection, but it means roughly half do not.

A good question for IT leaders to consider: What are the reasons to not give devs input into the tools they use to do their jobs? Technologists are fond of citing variations of the saying, “if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail,” when discussing tool selection and standardization. It seems to apply here.

Still, there’s good news here, and perhaps some credit goes to DevOps culture, digital transformation initiatives, cloud-native development, and other factors that are driving significant changes in the tools landscape.

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.

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