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The evolution of the software developer

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It’s tempting to think of the worldwide software developer shortage as a chicken and egg problem. Is there too much demand? Are there too few people?

It doesn’t matter which came first because of course both things are true. Yes demand is out of control because every company needs software developers. And yes, there are too few people, a fact which some experts believe was made even worse by the economic downturn. Too many layoffs made going in to a technology field not particularly appealing.

But there’s a third factor, and this is where it really gets complicated. Perhaps because software development is so ubiquitous, the very essence of the job has changed. It’s no longer enough to be technically skilled. Employers expect that. But they also want a developer who can work with a customer, talk the business language, be an industry insider and have a wide array of soft skills.

This “uber developer” is someone who is practically required to have two career tracks – a tech track and a business track. A nurse practitioner who can code? Check. A marketing whiz with UX experience? Check. A certified financial planner with mobile development skills? Check.

An interesting trend, certainly, but it’s by no means clear that it’s going to be easy to find these skill combinations in sufficient numbers to ease the shortage. Some people will welcome a mid-career shift (ok, even I think about going to an app dev boot camp sometimes…) but for many people this “not found in nature” skill combo is never going to make sense.

Matt Sigelman, CEO of Boston-based research firm Burning Glass, gets credit for the “not found in nature” observation and has spent a significant amount of time thinking about this issue. He does think employers are over-reaching and suggested that instead of trying to hire that dream developer, why not try to grow it internally? “There are a lot of jobs that aren’t software jobs that require software skills,” he explained. “And it’s much easier than it ever was before to acquire software skills. You can make the case that you can take business people and they can learn how to manage a custom database or build or run analytics. This gives them new skills without having to fundamentally reposition their careers.”

Sigelman thinks this education can be done, in many cases, in a nearly DIY way. And Matthew McCullough, director of field services for GitHub, thinks his site can and should be an option for companies looking to do internal education. There are no short-term fixes, but this might make the most sense.

Is your company doing any internal developer training or continuing education? I’d love to hear about it.