CODE MONKEYS NO MORE

In the future, everyone will be a software engineer and barely any will know how to code

Earlier this year, the App Association calculated that there were 223,000 unfilled coding jobs in the US. Companies have started touting coding as the new literacy, almost a prerequisite to getting in the door. Last month, General Electric’s CEO Jeff Immelt announced that every new hire at the 305,000-person company will learn to code.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are in sales, finance or operations,” he wrote on LinkedIn on Aug. 4. “You may not end up being a programmer, but you will know how to code…. This is existential and we’re committed to this.”

Everyone from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to Snoop Dogg seems to agree: Computer programming is the single best professional opportunity in the world.

The problem is no one has a clue how to actually teach everyone to code. Decades after demand for engineering jobs began to soar (and even including an aggressive immigration push by tech giants designed to fill those roles with coding talent from abroad), the supply of labor in the US workforce still lags, and the gap is growing. Out of the 1.9 million college students awarded bachelor’s degrees from US colleges in 2014, only 55,367 students received computer science degrees, while only 1 in 10 high schools in the US currently offer computer science classes. A surge in qualified developers is unlikely on the way.

The answer to the supply gap may lie in redefining what it means to code. Elite programmers spend years in universities or hacking in their bedroom to master arcane computer languages. But coding, at its most basic, is something millions of Americans already do every week. It’s called Microsoft Excel. The spreadsheet application, like WordPress, Visual Basic, and Salesforce, give anyone a simple way to program the sort of logical instructions computers can run—and that once required coding skills.

“There are lot of definitions of what a developer is,” says Zach Haehn, head of software engineering at Bloomberg’s San Francisco office. “It’s not just people who write code. People get scared when they see code, but they’ve been doing programming for 20 years, they just don’t think about it as programming…. It’s really just about logical thinking and analysis.”

Microsoft has even given these “civilian” programmers a persona: Mort. Microsoft used this designation to visualize one category of users and design features appropriate for them. The fictional “Mort” is a skilled professional, anyone from a business analyst to a construction site cost estimator, who needs computers to perform specific functions without mastering the intricacies of full-blown programming.

A new industry is emerging (pdf) to serve the Morts of the world by designing and selling what are called no-code or low-code platforms. Companies like Caspio, QuickBase, Appian, and Mendix are creating visual interfaces that enable people to essentially snap together blocks of software, and bypass the actual lines of code underlying those blocks (skilled developers can also dive into the code). With basic training, a non-technical employee can rapidly assemble software tools that solve business problems ranging from simple database queries to applications lashing together multiple legacy enterprise applications.

Forrester reports the sector earned $1.7 billion in 2015 and is on track to bring in $15 billion by 2020 as the majority of large companies adopt “Citizen Development” policies similar to the bring-your-own-device rules. Employees will be empowered to choose tools, and even partially assemble software, to solve their own business problems without IT approval.

Millions of “developers” will be found in the ranks of current employees, suggests Allison Mnookin, CEO of the low-code software platform QuickBase, even if they don’t replace traditional software engineers. “Low-code empowers those embedded in the front lines of the business to solve their own challenges and create apps that fit their needs exactly,” Mnookin wrote by email. “The business gets the solutions they need faster and IT can focus on the strategic work that most requires their skill and which can move the organization forward.”

Professional developers jobs are still safe. Most people still cannot code without engineers assisting. QuickBase surveyed its customers and found about 75% of them rely on IT specialists to start their projects, do about two-thirds of the work, then hand them off for the “last mile.”

That still delivers substantial benefits. QuickBase claims its customers avoid hiring two new IT developers on average and accelerate development time per application by eight weeks.

Software engineering is evolving along the same lines as many forms of technology: routine heavy lifting is gradually automated so people can take on more creative, complex problems. Developers who once bought servers and designed complex backend systems can now buy services from Amazon, Microsoft, or Google with a credit card.

“Coding is not the fundamental skill,” writes startup founder and ex-Microsoft program manager Chris Granger. What matters, he argues, is being able to model problems and use computers to solve them. “We don’t want a generation of people forced to care about Unicode and UI toolkits. We want a generation of writers, biologists, and accountants that can leverage computers.”

Right now, most companies still want to hire software engineers with academic training. The online hiring platform Hired reports 90% of its job listings for developers mandate a CS degree despite the fact that less than half of developers hold a degree in computer science. But the heart of computer science, argues Haehn, is knowing the available tools and crafting effective solutions to problems. Slinging code is one dimension of success. Classic product management skills—setting a vision, understanding customer problems, managing teams, and designing a product—are just as valuable. That might be one reason why product managers, not software engineers, are already the highest paid employees in Silicon Valley.

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