Just what is a developer?

Technologies making it easy to build and deploy apps means almost anyone can be a developer, whether they know anything about computer science or not

In late January, startup Code School -- you can guess what they do -- was purchased by Pluralsight. (I'll save you a Google; it does online learning for designers and software engineers in service to the idea of capital-C capital-L Code Literacy.) Code Literacy, of course, is the notion that learning to read and write code is the new learning to read and write. 

That notion is catching fire: No less than President Obama has called for more code education in schools, while New York-based code school General Assembly takes in funding and turns out newly-trained developers. It's all aimed at feeding the Silicon Valley tech machine, which has been shouting about a tech talent (and diversity) shortage for some time now, and pushing for immigration reform to get more skilled developers into the country.

Developers, many in tech argue, are rare beasts and must be valued, elaborately courted and pampered.

But there's this other thing happening in Silicon Valley, too: A boom in technologies making it easy to build and deploy apps with the selling point that anybody can be a developer, whether or not they know anything about computer science or even own a hoodie.

Thus, a dichotomy emerges: One side says, "We need more developers!" The other side says "Everybody's a developer!" Who's right? Well, it's complicated.

A common thought, often repeated in Silicon Valley, is that you can teach someone to code, but you can't make them a coder. Plenty of people can run through a tutorial online, learn to write basic web scripts (see also the term "script kiddie," a pejorative for those who use rudimentary coding skills to orchestrate brute force attacks on websites), or even attend a Code Academy. But they don't have the lifetime of experience or history of passion that makes one great.

"There's a certain profile of a developer, there's just a limited subset of those people," said Benjamin Robbins, Principal and Co-Founder of Seattle-based mobile services and app dev shop Palador.

This line of thinking ties in deeply with the idea of meritocracy -- the idea that how good you are directly correlates with success -- which is pervasive in every aspect of Silicon Valley culture. Anybody who founds a "unicorn" startup like Slack or Zenefits earned every inch of their success. To be wealthy in Silicon Valley is to be worshipped by hordes of conference attendees and meet-up groups who want to learn the secrets to your success. Just look at last week's Crunchies, an awards show where taxi app Uber walked away with "Startup of the Year," despite the fact that it seemingly couldn't go a month in 2014 without some kind of scandal. After all, it's raised $40 billion and growing like crazy.

But there's a hard question to be asked, if you accept this premise as true: If only the best succeed, and therefore those who are successful are the best, why are so many developers at so many major Silicon Valley firms mostly white and overwhelmingly male? Just look at Apple's, Twitter's, or Google's 2014 diversity reports for the evidence. 

"Put simply, Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity, and it’s hard to address these kinds of challenges if you’re not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts," wrote Google vice president of People Operations Laszlo Block in a blog entry discussing Google's 70% male, 61% white workforce. 

There are two possibilities here. The first: Marginalized populations like women and people of color just aren't as good at coding. This doesn't really pass the sniff test, for reasons that are hopefully obvious. The second: Something is happening -- something pervasive -- that is keeping these groups out. 

The traditional answer comes in the form of initiatives like the one proposed by President Obama, and that are being embraced by local school districts across the U.S over. By focusing education on STEM (science, technology, education, and math), a steady stream of new graduates equipped with code skills will be available in the years to come -- no H-1B visa required. This is referred to by the industry as the "pipeline problem." 

But it's only half the issue. What about right now? There are organizations like the nonprofit CODE2040, working hard to place black and latino interns at tech firms. And companies like collaboration platform developer Rally Software, which recently partnered with Salesforce on a corporate philanthropy pledge drive initiative, lists diversity as a core initiative. In addition to attending events like the women-in-tech  Grace Hopper Celebration to recruit interns with an eye toward hiring them full time, Rally gives away its software to nonprofits who need help to build technology products.

"We want nothing to stop them from changing the world," said Rally Software Director of Corporate Social Responsibility Geri Mitchell-Brown.

That point dovetails nicely with the tech industry meme that "every company is a technology company," which is to say that you can't run your business without some kind of app strategy, a BYOD plan, an e-commerce play, a social media presence or some combination therein. 

(Just for a very Silicon Valley example, I'm writing this from a coffee shop that has its own mobile web app so you can check in to a seat and have food and drink brought to you.)

Bringing us back, this is where tools like Salesforce Trailhead, Kony, Xamarin, Appcelerator, and others come in: anybody can build anything that runs on any device. If you have some skill with code, cool, they can help you out. If you don't, also cool. Maybe these apps are just as good as something a "real" developer could build for you. Maybe they aren't. Odds are, they work. And the more these tools are put into people's hands, the more those people will learn what to do with them. 

"What we may see are the people who are 'coders,' and the people who are 'composers,'" said Red Hat Senior Director of Product Marketing Mike Piech on the divide. 

As for code literacy, the prognosis is still hazy. It's definitely important, as anybody who works in technology will tell you. Last year, now-Pivotal Field CTO Joshua McKenty told CITEworld that he believes coding is the new e-mail -- something that will go from being the province of nerds to something everybody just knows how to do.

But as an anonymous contributor at tech criticism publication Model View Culture points out in a piece called "Diversity for Sale," the value of code schools is still vastly unproven, especially given the toxic notion that "developer" is something you do, not something you are. You could go to code school, get your education, and find out that still nobody wants to hire you. In fairness, there's no real accreditation process for these schools -- something that becomes another hurdle in the way of anybody who's perfectly capable of being a developer but unable to get a foothold. 

"Companies simultaneously claim they care about diversity and hiring the best engineers, yet their 'meritocratic' methods for identifying the latter often are in conflict with the former," writes the anonymous contributor. 

Oh, and that's not even to mention those women who manage to find a career in tech are often incredibly lonely and demoralized, if they're not scared away completely by bad behavior and harassment. It's worth noting that Intel has devoted $300 million to fixing its own diversity problem, including fostering and working to retain employees from diverse backgrounds; Microsoft has made similar commitments.  

The idea of talent shortage, such as it is, is predicated on the idea that the "best of the best" just can't be found in America, or more specifically, in Northern California, where so many of the tech cognoscenti congregate. That underlies the "need" for immigration reform that enables companies to get smarter workers who are essentially indentured servants, for cheap

There's no argument that more people need to learn to code, or that talent is important. But maybe it's time for the technology industry to stop focusing on what a developer is and start worrying about why more women and minorities aren't working for you or why it's hard to keep them if they are. Maybe the talent is already there, and the tools they need to succeed are already there, and companies are looking right past them.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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