Yesterday was one of my most interesting days as a blogger. My blog statistics for the day skyrocketed as I got most readers and comments than ever. Unfortunately most of the comments were quite negative and I got my fair share of three and four letter words, references to my physical appearance, accusations of being incompetent plus a number of stereotypical references to my nationality.
What deserved me all this was a post “Keep Developers Out of Politics, Please”, which was originally meant to be a humorous response to the (i thought equally humorous) post by Clay Johnson about “Why Developers Should Run for Congress”.
Putting all that discussion behind, this experience had me think about why so many developers reacted so vehemently. While their reaction was somewhat proving my point (on average, they would not make great politicians), I was surprised to see behavioral patterns that I would expect from “oppressed minorities”, which I did not think they are. With all the coolness of consumer devices like the iPhone and app stores, social media platforms, flashy web sites and new enthusiasm for technology at the White House and in other governments around the world, I thought that developers felt proud of their accomplishments and how they are contributing to societal change. And they probably are, but reactions and the failure to read the irony in the post seem indicative of some other, deeper issue.
I remember my times as a developer. I started using old languages like Fortran, Pascal, Ada, C, developing compilers and real-time distributed systems for manufacturing, utilities and aerospace applications. At the time, of course, the web was not yet there, and technology hadn’t made the C-level suite yet. Personal computers were relatively new and we were considered lucky to be able to use a VAX/VMS or Sun 2 with Unix for development and testing: some of my classmates at university had ended up using Cobol on mainframes and probably coding applications that are still in use today.
Over time I got exposed to object oriented programming (Eiffel and C++), things got better, and the pattern of collaboration and reuse started to emerge, although not yet at the level that we see today. But still, we were the geeks, those who could not explain to a normal person what they do for living.
As eloquently said by all my critics, things have changed, haven’t they? Almost everybody has a basic understanding of the role of technology because there is so much technology at home, at work, in our car, at the movies. Explaining the role and the impact of developers should be easier both to consumers and inside enterprises. We keep saying that technology permeates everything we do, that it is one of the largest contributors to productivity increase and wealth creation, that has become an integral part of the business.
As many pointed out, developers today do not longer fit the stereotype: they socialize and collaborate, in a nutshell they are cool.
But then, why did they overreact? Why so many comments and tweets and petitions and even one request to Gartner to get me fired?
Reading through some of the comments on other blogs, it appears that the ”geeky” stereotype that I used still hurts. For how cooler and luckier developers might be today, many of them still feel they are far from the limelight and some still struggle to establish their relevance within the enterprise. This should be less of an issue for developers who work for a technology provider, whose core business is indeed technology. But even there, sometimes consultants, product managers, sales people may have more direct or immediate recognition for their accomplishments.
The other potential worry is the commoditization of technology. With phenomena like cloud computing and SaaS and user programming (or “citizen developers”), some of the traditional programmer jobs are just going away or moving to larger vendors or different geographies. If I think about how much custom development we used to do when I was a developer, the picture today is totally different.
Of course there will always be developers, but there will be very few in user organizations: when CIOs reflect about the future created by the confluence of commoditization and socialization, they clearly see smaller and leaner IT organizations, relying more on external providers than internal resources. As far as vendors, their location on the world map may be quite different from what it is today.
So ironically, at the very moment when developers can start shining in the public eye and prove the mythical value of IT, their jobs may be moved or displaced or just done by their own clients (the users).
Could this be a good reason for developers to run for Congress? I doubt it. It is rather the right moment to reflect about their next career move and about the skills they need to develop to remain palatable to the market.
For some of their projects, roles, organizations there might be an expiration date already: they may just be too busy – or proud – to look for it.