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Microsoft: 2021 tools must support 'remote-first' developers

Microsoft has labeled developers the 'digital first responders' in the enterprise and is telling coders to prepare for application development oriented around remote work.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many employees into remote work scenarios, software developers -- who are likely to have more experience with remote work than others -- now look to be "remote-first" and will require new tools and techniques to be most successful.

In addition, post-pandemic developers will need to adopt a series of varied approaches to building software. These include heavier use of open source, installing low-code tools as a core part of their development repertoire and working in "fusion" teams that feature both professional developers and other workers with business domain expertise, wrote Amanda Silver, corporate vice president in Microsoft's developer division, in a recent blog post.

Microsoft has been evolving its tool set to help enterprises and their often over-taxed remote-first developers work more effectively to meet the demand for more applications as companies undergo digital transformations and move more of their workloads to the cloud. Indeed, remote-first is more than just a buzzword to some observers.

"'Remote-first' I think is a key concept in that tools have traditionally been used with us all sitting in the same space and as such, a lot of information is passed via hallway conversations, notes on walls, etc.," said Thomas Murphy, an analyst at Gartner Research.

Microsoft, unlike lots of other companies, has made remote-first development an explicit design principle, and it should be, according to Murphy.

"Kind of like mobile first … if you design for mobile you will get a great mobile experience and it is easier to scale from that to say, desktop, versus harder to go the other way effectively," he said. "Same if you focus on the idea that we are remote and develop with that [in mind], you can have a great experience and users who are not remote won't lose anything."

I don't know a developer who has not worked from home -- even if only at night or weekends – so this is not really something new.
Holger MuellerAnalyst, Constellation Research

The concept of remote-first application development is part of what makes developers the "digital first responders" of enterprise IT because that mindset enables developers to build and ship code faster, from anywhere.

However, "To me this is just another buzzword," said Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research in Monte Vista, Calif. "Unless there is some SDLC [software development lifecycle] support specifically tuned to remote and distributed teams, this is not special. I don't know a developer who has not worked from home -- even if only at night or weekends -- so this is not really something new."

But Microsoft insists that remote-first development changes the nature of collaboration.

For example, "Switching to digital sticky notes is part of the story, but the way development teams and other knowledge workers are using collaboration tools has expanded and deepened, changing the way people work," said Jason Bloomberg, an analyst at Intellyx in Suffolk, Va. "From Microsoft's perspective, this story is about Teams, GitHub and their numerous development tools -- but of course, remote-first usually involves a mix of different tools from different vendors."

More low-code

Meanwhile, as demand continues to grow, more developers will adopt low-code tools. It's a matter of simple math.

"There simply aren't enough professional code-first developers to go around for the volume of work ahead to modernize businesses," said Dona Sarkar, a Microsoft Principal Cloud Advocate, in a blog post. "However, the good news is low-code technology is here to empower more people, regardless of coding ability, to create apps."

Low-code tools will hasten the emergence of "fusion" development teams as well. These teams consist of professional developers along with citizen developers equipped with low-code tools and perhaps some departmental developers sprinkled in.

There are typically two types of fusion teams. One is where pro developers write APIs and components for citizen developers to later use or reuse to build apps. And another is where the professional developers play the role of architects to plan out all app-building work, Sarkar said.

Fusion teams rely on diversity and separation of duties to maximize efficiency.

"We're not seeing dedicated fusion teams that include professional developers on a full-time basis, since those professionals are in short supply," Bloomberg said. "What we see are teams of citizen developers, business analysts, and front-end people such as web developers, graphic designers, etc., with the professional developers, security and integration experts, as well as people responsible for deployment and operations available as needed -- but not dedicated to any particular low-code team."

However, Gartner views Microsoft as somewhat unique in their ability now to tell a fusion dev team story and support it in their tools.

"You can be working in Power Platform as a low-code developer but can have all the advantages lifecycle-wise of a pro-code tools environment behind you and that pro-code team can build and support the low-code team with components and services," Murphy said. "This ability to work between your pro-code team and the business unit developers I think creates an opportunity for a good symbiotic relationship."

The more open source, the better

Meanwhile, Microsoft indicated that you can never get enough of open source software, particularly as it relates to lessons learned for remote development -- which has been the foundation of open source software from its inception.

While Microsoft has taken pains to ensure that its governance and security of open source software is intact, the company also seeks more ways that it can help open source developers through tooling and other means, said Sarah Novotny, open source lead in Azure's office of the CTO, in a blog post.

One Microsoft could do to help enable open source developers is to enhance digital solutions for reusing code, said Arnal Dayaratna, an analyst at IDC.

"Perhaps they could create something like a Google search for code that developers could use to expedite the identification of code that is relevant to applications they are developing," he said. "Open source code and digital solutions are great, but their adoption depends on infrastructures that promote their discovery and use."

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