The rise of the developer: Software engineers now have a seat at the table, but it has come at a price

Software developers have come a long way since the 80s and 90s when they were generally hidden away in a windowless room, siloed from decision-making and forced to code day and night existing on pizza and Coca-Cola.

However, out of the ashes of workplaces past, a new frontier of business innovation has arrived.   

In a global Accenture survey, 90% of over 1200 business and technology leaders cited IT-led innovation as critical to their company’s growth.

Today, the world runs on software: from apps and websites to chatbots and smart home technology, from the Internet of Things to driverless cars, voice recognition, mobile games and robotics. This is the fourth industrial revolution and developers are leading the digital charge.

Behind every person with simple internet access (about 4.39 billion people at last count), there’s an army of digital architects, developers, and DevOps professionals beavering away behind the scenes. 

But perhaps ‘behind the scenes’ is no longer entirely accurate.   

With the rise of DevOps, surging job growth, and media-hyped events such as Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference (a technologist’s Woodstock, now in its 30th year), software developers have become the new oil tycoons. They’re setting the pace for disruption and change. Developers are no longer siloed from strategic decision making ⁠— they’re the ones building the business strategy.    

And the numbers seem to bear out this trend.

According to The Knowledge Academy, more than 250,000 new developer roles will exist by 2026 ⁠— the most for any job in tech. Python-fluent developers are more-in-demand than ever, thanks to the growing popularity of AI and machine learning. In Australia alone, the government expects another 80,000 developer job openings over the next five years.

This surge has come with its challenges. Because developers now have more power and autonomy, they’ve had to broaden their skillset and face certain realities, including the critical elements of cybersecurity and privacy. It’s part of the reason DevOps places such a high premium on secure deployment: developers can’t just shuttle their code to security teams anymore ⁠— they need to build with security, safety and privacy at the forefront of design.

This is where the full-stack developer first emerged. As Jeff Knupp says: “The increasing scope of responsibility of the ‘developer’ has given rise to the chimera-like job candidate: the ‘full-stack’ developer …. capable of doing the job of developer, QA team member, operations analyst, sysadmin and DBA.”  

Knupp sees this intrusion of agile startup thinking into everyday business as a negative. But there is a silver lining: as developers broaden their skillset, they also broaden their influence.

According to Slashdata reports, more and more developers are embracing lifelong learning and turning to fields such as UI design, cybersecurity, data science, cloud deployment and project management to future-proof their careers and stand out from the explosion of offshore talent from the likes of India, China, and the Philippines.

In addition, many senior developer and chief technology officer roles are expected to embody important soft skills such as communication, along with commercially oriented skills to ensure their code doesn’t just ship features.

Companies are looking for tech teams and developers who can not only build the next Facebook, but also ensure it’s profitable, positioned correctly, and attracts investors and growth.  

This constant upskilling has a kind of self-fulfilling momentum. As developers diversify their skillsets, their business and knowledge equity grows, and their seat at the table gets bigger.  

But this doesn’t mean that software developers are all-powerful, exactly.

Every company will need a mix of generalists and specialists across roles, and as teams grow so too does the process and structure, often moving strategy and decision-making into newly established roles.

The same Slashdata report indicates that although devs have more decision-making power, this effect dwindles as company size increases, especially where traditional IT culture relegates developers to pure ‘back-room’ or outsourced production. 

For everyone else, the fourth industrial revolution is picking up pace. The rise of the software developer is well underway. For those committed to lifelong learning, the spoils will be rich. 

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