The software creation literacy crisis

The software creation literacy crisis

Summary: The number of people who can read and write code, particularly for mobile devices, is dangerously low: what's needed are easier ways to create software you can use in the context of your specific needs


Amid the great wall of noise the digital world is today stands a stark reality: fewer and fewer people have the ability to read and write the basic code building blocks of the internet and mobile world. Ismael Ghalimi of STOIC provocatively writes

Imagine a world where 99.975% of the population is illiterate.

illiterate: unable to read or write.

If you’re a cellphone subscriber, unfortunately, this is the world you live in.

If you can read or write code, you’re among the 0.025% lucky few software literate.

If you can’t, you’re part of the 99.975% who are being left out.

software illiterate: unable to read or write software code.

This is a tragedy, and it’s getting worse year over year.

Ismael also goes on to say

According to the Computer Industry Almanac, there were 1.6 billion PCs in use around the world in 2011. And if we believe the rather conservative estimates computed by DZone, there might be as many as 43 million developers in the world. This translates to a 2.687% Software Literacy Rate in the PC world, which is 107.5 times higher than the Software Literacy Rate in the mobile world. In other words, when transitioning from the PC era to the mobile era, our Software Literacy Rate actually dropped by two orders of magnitude.

These thought provoking numbers demonstrate our descent from the relatively large number of people who understood how things worked in the early home brew computer era compared with today's lightweight world of apps and mobile platforms.

Putting on my car building enthusiast hat, this reminds me of our similar descent from an earlier era of practical, hands on understanding of how automobiles work, resulting in the demise of owner maintenance and repair abilities anywhere or anytime. Just as automobile manufacturers increasingly discourage you from lifting the hood of your robot built car and touching anything by installing plastic engine covers with warranty warnings, the Software as a Service and mobile worlds have similar 'can't get at that now' restrictions.

Ghalimi's rationale and vision is that if software is indeed increasingly everywhere and pervades all aspects of modern life (and I agree with him that it does) then we need to fundamentally rethink the way software applications are developed, and strive to create usable software development tools for the illiterate 99.975%. This was an area that seemed so promising a few years ago, but then much open source development got packaged up and put behind Software as a Service firewalls, and we're now in a pretty tricky confluence of terrible economic conditions coupled with an increasing reliance on renting technologies we don't understand and can't get under the hood of. Ghalimi's company STOIC aims to let anyone develop a cloud application as easily as using a spreadsheet to input the values you need which will certainly help.

The big enterprise software players routinely convert past innovations into features in their big push to maintain control of traditional business software needs, attempting to facing off the threat of social networking agility by providing tools for individuals and groups in the context of their offerings. Whether this will satisfy users will largely depend on their appetite for continuing to pay out total cost involved around seat licenses and maintenance fees. Most of the innovation coming out of enterprise software vendors is in licensing complexity, as a client drily noted recently….

There is an undiminished desire and demand for tools tightly tailored to users needs, as evidenced inside companies by the huge shift from IT choosing and provisioning suites of tools to Line of Business selecting applications that solve their specific business problems. However, that revolution is largely consumption of supplied services only - what we need is the ability to craft and create innovative digital tools, not just search around premade tools that might work for us.

The noisy, attention deficit 'culture of distraction' so eloquently described by Joe Kraus of Google Ventures earlier this year points to the need for 'SlowTech', as he calls it, something the considered creation of actual tools you can use is arguably the epitome of. Today's world of skimming the digital world for superficial stimulation and ideas has created a major crisis of attention, which has been fed by Pavlov's Dog style 24/7 smart phone checking addictions. The irony of course is that this is compounding passive, reactionary activity (as opposed to 'users' creating anything new).

Finding ways to empower the individual and groups to innovate around their specific contextual needs is something I'm heavily in favor of in an era where entrenched interests are once again carving up available options for their software end users and their data.



Image of welder from Shorpy 
July 1942. Ford plant at Willow Run, Michigan. "Steady of eye and hand, women workers at the great Willow Run bomber plant are among those throughout the country who are relieving serious shortages of skilled workers by doing such semi-skilled jobs as the one here. She's welding parts of the cooling system direct to the supercharger.Medium format negative by Ann Rosener. |

Topics: Collaboration, Cloud, Enterprise Software, Software Development


Oliver Marks & Associates provides seasoned, technology agnostic independent consulting guidance to companies on effective Digital Enterprise Transformation business strategy, tactics, infrastructure & technology decisions, roll out and enduring use models and management.

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  • How many rocket scientists and brain surgeons do we need?

    The bulk of computer users are happy with their apps and applications and the amount of developers, especially for .Net is quite large. If you use Visual Studio then you just update to the latest and choose your target whether it be Intel or ARM on RT or mobiles. The update of Windows Phones to the Windows 8 core also makes it easier.

    There are also tools to allow the novice to create applications without the need to see or understand code - my own application allows normal people to create HTML/Javascript eLearning and apps, with no code to be seen.

    I wonder what percentage of coders can actually understand assembly language any more - most of us have moved on.
    • Re: If you use Visual Studio ...

      ... which is useless for proper cross-platform development, like for instance for Android.

      Let's face it, on the programming literacy scale, Visual Studio ranks somewhere around grade-school level.
      • Why would MS want to encourage cross-platform development...

        When they've spent the last 20 years trying to stamp it out?
        John L. Ries
        • Re: Why would MS want to encourage cross-platform development...

          Which is just conceding my point.

          Does anybody still wonder why Microsoft is having so much trouble trying to stay relevant in the lost-PC era?
      • Clearly

        you have no clue what you are talking about. Visual Studio is still considered the standard by which all development enviornments are measured against - no others have its depth.

        As for cross platform development, Microsoft tried it twice, once for Mac OS and Java. Both failed - a combination of Microsoft's fault, and a lack of interest.
        • MS-Java...

          ...was intended to be Windows-only. That's why Sun revoked MS' Java license.

          MS has no interest whatever in portability and hasn't since it started pushing Windows instead of DOS back in the 1990s.
          John L. Ries
    • Here we go again...

      It depresses me no end that whenever someone observes that there's a tech issue the average user would find challenging to overcome, the answer offered is never "Educate more people so they actually understand this complex, expensive equipment our society is so heavily invested in," but invariably boils down to, "People are perfectly happy being dumb as bricks, let them stay that way. Dumb down the tech to accommodate them."

      Also, this is another great reason not to write off PC's just yet. It's stupid to flush a comparatively well-understood form of technology down the toilet while barely anyone has a clue about its nominal replacement.
      • Thanks Ginevra for an excellent comment!

        In the UK, we're at last trying to enthuse young people still at school to have a go at programming with the Raspberry Pi computer, a computer so cheap that almost anyone can afford one. It amuses me that this computer has an HDMI video output so the TV will be used as a monitor, exactly as the situation was back in the early 1980s, the only difference being the resolution available on TVs today.
  • What a load of Crap

    From someone that has a vested interest in saying this crap.
    If anything their are 2 many developers in the world especially the mobile world. Pure supply and demand economics bares this out. There are so many software developers, that most of them will spend months building an application only to give it away, because it has no value. Very few developers are making any money at all. People will spend $1.50 on a 20oz soda but wont spend 99c on a app.
  • There is a solution to this "problem"

    Pay mobile platform developers more and you provide a financial incentive to learn mobile APIs.

    I get severely annoyed by people who preach the free market when it works to the advantage of employers and vendors, but panic when it works to the advantage of workers or consumers.
    John L. Ries
  • Simple tools can only make simple apps

    The trouble with having simple tools so people can create their own apps is that in order for them to be simple enough for the average person to understand they'll only have features enough to create very simple apps. Software that's really useful tends to be complicated to create.

    Also, as another poster has mentioned: it's to the point now where there's not enough incentive for truly talented people to create apps. Very few people can afford to create and maintain really good software for free.
  • The overwhelming bureaucracy...

    is a major problem with the "modern" world. Bear with me here. That picture could never be replicated post OSHA. Lead bricks for staging, flammable clothing and "headgear" would be verboten. The "can-do" spirit (and associated desire for higher education, there's the tie in to the theme of this article) of the industrial revolution has been thoroughly tamped out by zealous bureaucrats with no common sense and only self preservation and advancement in mind. The education system has followed suit, educating down to the lowest common denominator. Hence the legions of mindless digital zombies content to wander aimlessly while staring at their mobile "entertainment" with not a wit of desire to learn anything "behind the curtain". Liberalism *has* run amok, and "Atlas Shrugged". The would be programmers of the world are filtered out as the supply of secondary education bows to market pressures and grants useless B.A. degrees to hopeful graduates that enter the job market ready to take that burger flipping job from a H.S. grad.

    On a completely different tack, I wonder how much copper will have to be replaced in the NY Metro system since the power is off now and the scrappers are prolly working overtime.
    What the ...!
    • If there is a lack of programming skills... has very little to do with bureaucracy (after all, it's not a licensed profession) and everything to do what computer professionals are typically paid.

      But I doubt there's a real lack... more likely it's the case that employers would rather rely on subsidies and H1Bs than actually train anyone.
      John L. Ries
  • Neglected Resources

    What profanities were in my previous comment? It seems that someone is defining the word in a very loose manner.
  • What profanities?

    This is the third time a comment of mine on one of these forums has been rejected for nonexistent profanities. This comment was about the difficulty of getting cross training in new technologies for near-retirement-age experienced mainframe programmers. Hopefully the moderator will see that no profanities are in the comment and let it pass.
    • Same here

      It did that to me the other day too. I don't think my comment ever was approved. What the heck, ZDNet?
    • Re: What profanities?

      Avoid words with "ti‌t" in them.
  • Bureaucracies Killing Investment?

    The Ayn Rand disciple using the screen name "what the ...?" seems to think that health and safety regulations are bad because fewer new businesses are started now. Would he rather go back to the days of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, with over a hundred young women burned to death because the exits were secured to prevent "playing hookey" so that they were not usable as emergency exits? The days when such tragedies were at the sole cost of the worker and/or worker's family, with no liability on the part of the factory owner? The days when young women painted watch dials with radium compounds, never being warned that licking the brushes to sharpen them would give them cancer in their later years (and possibly deformed children)? When X-ray machines were in every shoe store and children played with them? When houses were painted with lead and children eating peeling paint suffered brain damage?

    The "bureaucratic" regulations were put in place because business owners got away with ANYTHING without them, and made every effort to cut costs for THEMSELVES at the expense of the lives and health of their workers (and customers), and the public was aroused to stop these abuses. In the case of that picture, if the welder were the business OWNER and was aware of the safety hazards and CHOSE to put HERSELF in danger to save money, that is her right. For an employer to FORCE these dangers on employees as a condition of employment is an entirely different matter, morally and legally.
    • You have to understand...

      ...that to Randians, only investors, corporate executives, and members of the more lucrative professions are truly productive. The rest of us are parasites, no matter how hard we work.
      John L. Ries
      • I Understand Well ...

        ... that to Randians, anyone without money is part of the "untermenschen" and their lives are worth nothing except insofar as they can be productive to the "ubermenschen". Your cell phone becomes obsolete, toss it. Your workers become obsolete, toss them. The unfortunate, from the Randian viewpoint, fact is that it is illegal to put them out of their misery by euthanasia.