Two out of three developers are self-taught, and other trends from a survey of 56,033 coders

Learning at work.
Learning at work.
Image: Reuters/Tobias Schwarz
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The discussion site Stack Overflow has evolved into much more than a place for developers to ask and answer questions about their coding problems. “We are the world’s programmer community,” it declares on its Facebook page, and indeed, with the 4.7 million users it claims, it deserves that title.

The site offers a telling snapshot of that community with the results of its annual developer survey. The site posed 45 questions to its users about themselves and the technology, jobs, and values that are most important to them. The answers of the 56,000 people who responded hint at what’s next for technology.

Here are some takeaways:

Every company is becoming a software company

“Software is eating the world,” said venture capitalist Marc Andreessen in a 2011 Wall Street Journal essay (paywall). It’s also invading every other profession. “Software developer” has already become the most common job title in several US states. 

Most of the developers who responded to the survey don’t work for software or internet companies anymore: 62% are in finance, consulting, health care, retail, manufacturing, and other industries.

Many developers don’t have computer science degrees

Self-taught developers dominate technology: 69% of the developers who responded to the survey are at least partly self-taught, and fewer than half hold a formal degree in computer science. In a trend spreading to other fields, many are choosing ways to learn that offer everything but a degree: online courses, bootcamps, on-the job training, and collaborating with peers.

What’s the financial value of those five extra years in school for a computer science PhD? Less than you might think, according to Stack Overflow’s survey. Those who “learned on their own” report earning about $104,000, compared to PhDs who take home about $122,000.

Your next great employee may never see your job posting

Many developers don’t find jobs by searching listings.  ”A huge percentage of the greatest talent is not looking,” says Jay Hanlon who leads community growth at Stack Overflow. “These people never hit what you would consider the job market.”

Thirty percent of developers in the survey said a friend connected them to their last job, and 63% said they are open to hearing about new opportunities but not actively looking.

There’s a gender chasm

Only 6% of developers who answered the survey were women. Stack Overflow says the number among users could be as high as 12%, based on statistics from its 40 million monthly visitors, while the US Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number of women in its broader “developer” category at 17%. ”It doesn’t matter which number you pick,” says Hanlon. “It’s awful.”

The gender gap in science and technology has only gotten worse since the 1980s, when closer to a third of developers were women. The survey did find a potentially promising trend: The female developers who responded skewed younger, suggesting a new generation entering the workforce (or, more pessimistically, that more women are dropping out of the industry over time).

It’s a field of rookies

Coders today are unlikely to remember the 1980s. The average developer who responded to Stack Overflow’s survey is 29.6 years old and has been programming for five years or less. Though, that average age is up from about 28 last year.

The Force is strong with developers 

The Enterprise is losing ground to the Millennium Falcon. As more experienced Star Trek fans go boldly into retirement (or at least into the minority), Star Wars fans outnumber them by more than 3 to 1.