Consider this the next time you use the term ‘developer’

With Silicon Valley (the place, but also the TV show) glamorizing engineers, the “Learn to Code” Movement becoming mainstream, and organizations like General Assembly and Girls Who Code making it more convenient to learn programming skills, development is catching the eye of a whole new generation. What’s more — even household names like Google, Disney and Apple have all announced programs to teach kids how to code over the past year.     

These are important efforts. Some would say, crucial even, with our personal and professional worlds becoming increasingly digitized. But just as more people are learning to code, so too are more learning to develop apps and programs without it, aided by the emergence of tools that streamline and automate development. All of this hype, however, is overshadowing the real questions: What is a developer? Does programming have to reside at the core? Can I be one if I’ve never written a string of code? How do I know what kind of developer is best for my teams?   

We’ve defined “developers” too narrowly 

In tech circles, a developer is almost exclusively associated with coding—someone who designs, programs and tests software. They do their work behind the command line and perpetual black screens. They frequent Hacker News and Stack Overflow, and count JavaScript and Python alongside Spanish as real languages they know. Sound familiar? This is probably because many of you reading this are developers and are making a living as software engineers.   

It’s important to remember that in its simplest form, a developer is simply someone creating something from nothing—whether that’s an app, a digital experience, infrastructure or something else. I firmly believe that what truly makes someone a developer is not whether they know how to code or not, but if they have a problem-solving mindset. Good developers can recognize problems, troubleshoot and come out the other side with a solution. As original Y-Combinator co-founder Paul Graham once wrote, “Your code is your understanding of the problem you're exploring. So it's only when you have your code in your head that you really understand the problem.” If it’s the problem that matters and not necessarily the physical code you write, do you even need code to be a developer at all?   

New technologies are creating a new generation (and type of) of developer

In recent years, a whole new market has emerged with low-code/no-code tools that make development easier. Not only can we develop full applications without code leveraging low-code applications, but we can even connect them to other sources. Take integration tools Zapier or Workato, for instance They allow you to connect business apps—everything from Salesforce to Slack to Trello—together and integrate workflows without a lick of code.     

The power of these types of tools is that everyday line of business users—in this case, let’s say an HR lead—can now simply create the solutions they need on their own, rather than knocking on the door of IT to try to get someone to help them. And by doing it themselves, they are going through the same problem-solving process as a traditional developer—just with no (or very little) code involved in the process. For example, if said HR manager wants to build a new system to track incoming resumes, or the onboarding status of new recruits, she doesn’t need to rely on clunky software like Excel. Today, there are technologies available that make it easy and efficient for her to build a scalable and customizable app to track all that data in the cloud, share with team members, and integrate with other critical systems—all without writing one line of code. 

Last fall, Quick Base surveyed so-called “citizen developers” and found that only 15 percent had any formal coding skills. Yet, an astounding 76 percent considered developing apps part of their day job, up from 68 percent the year prior. I’m expecting the numbers to be even higher this year. In fact, current estimates from Forrester show the "low-code" movement will be worth $15bn by 2020, a significant jump from the $1.7bn in 2015.     

It’s About the Mindset, Not the Skill-Set 

While we’ve been focusing on the engineer talent shortage and how to foster and grow a new generation of app builders, the truth is there may actually be many more developers than we think. The problem is we are currently not counting them as such, nor considering how they might help solve the talent shortage itself. Who’s to say that with the right tools, a non-technical citizen developer can’t help offload some of the need for traditional developers? The fact is, not only are they theoretically able to do it, they already are—and there are countless benefits of doing so. There will be more app builders in the organization who can create and maintain apps for far lower cost than their technical development counterparts. Because these people are generally closest to the problem they’re trying to solve, apps are more likely to be created to spec, and changes and maintenance accomplished more quickly and inexpensively (up to 96 percent lower cost). It’s about matching the right project with the right talent, and experienced developers don’t necessarily need to be building simpler apps to the degree they are now. A citizen developer can do that, and let more experienced developers focus on more complex or mission critical activities that take advantage of their deeper technical skill sets. 

Developers as we know them today aren’t going away, but the traditional definition needs to be expanded

Are technical developers going to be made obsolete by an army of non-coders? Not at all. The fact is there are simply things you can do through years of coding expertise that are incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for citizen developers to do with no code. But as technology continues to evolve and the number of citizen developers grows, it’s worth asking the question if the box we have put developers in is too small.   

Mark Field, Cloud Software Product Management Leader, Quick Base 

Image Credit: Everything Possible / Shutterstock