The role of the software developer is as central to an organization's success now as those right at the top. While they might not be involved in corporate decision making, developers are crucial to steering growth within the enterprise in a market in which software savviness is increasingly a marker of commercial success.
Running technology in a business has become a business in itself. As commerce goes digital and consumers spend more time working, shopping and managing their lives from home, companies are spending billions of dollars to showcase their technology and maintain a lead on competitors. As a result, software creators find themselves in enormous demand.
This ZDNet Special Feature series is both an examination of the role of developers and the work they do, as well as an exploration into the trends that are shaping the software industry, and with it, the direction of travel for businesses in the coming months and years. Our ambition is to cast a light on the value of software developers in the modern digital workplace, as well as investigate the skills, technologies and programming languages that are driving market demand.
According to CompTIA's February 2022 Tech Jobs Report, software developers are the biggest driver of tech-hiring activity within US organizations. The average salary of US tech workers in 2018 was $84,300; today, it's closer to $120,500, with those in decision-making positions able to earn an average salary of $138,200, according to CompTIA.
Dice's 2022 Tech Salary Report recorded a 6.9% increase in the average technologist salary between 2019 and 2021, reaching $104,566. "That's the highest salary ever recorded by the Dice Salary Report, and a positive sign for technologists in terms of the current and potential future value of their skills and experience," the authors noted.
The fact that some of the best-paying jobs are in tech is a testament to the value that these professionals bring to businesses, and as such, having one or more programming languages under your belt is going to make you extremely appealing in the eyes of recruiters. Businesses are currently falling over themselves to secure the talent they need to move with the times, making software jobs a secure and lucrative employment field in an otherwise uncertain economic climate.
According to O'Reilly's 2021 Data and AI Salary Survey, developers who work with niche programming languages are likely to take home higher average salaries than their more common counterparts, largely owing to the fact that they are in such short supply.
Conversely, less common languages were associated with high salaries, the highest of which was Rust (over $180,000), followed by Go ($179,000), and Scala ($178,000). Other more niche languages associated with high salaries were Erlang, Julia, Swift, and f#.
It's tricky to determine the relationship between salaries and programming languages with exactitude – a lot of the time, developers who work in niche languages already have a solid background in older, more traditional languages, meaning they already bring vital skills and experience to the role that makes them more valuable to employers.
Even so, there is evidently a link between hard-to-find software expertise and the ability to command a higher salary. The 2021 Developer Survey by Stack Overflow surveyed 80,000 developers worldwide and found that Clojure coders took home the highest median salary of $95,000 per year. This was followed by f# ($81,037), Elixir ($80,077), Erlang ($80,077) Perl ($80,000) and Ruby ($80,000).
"In tech, some skills are extraordinarily high-paying in comparison to others, and for good reason. These skills are highly specialized, mastered only by a relative few (at least compared to the millions who learn certain programming languages), and often apply to extraordinarily complicated systems that can take years to learn." – Dice Tech Salary Report 2021
The correlation between programming languages and salaries can also be tied to the type of roles that are currently seeing high demand in the tech industry. According to HackerRank's 2021 Tech Recruiting Benchmark Report, initiatives in big data and analytics are having the strongest impact on tech talent demand, with just over 50% of the 5,297 respondents surveyed reporting that this was the biggest focus of their recruitment efforts.
Clojure, f# and Go are commonly used in data science and artificial intelligence (AI) applications; both fields are seeing increased investment by organizations undergoing digital transformation, and as a result more companies are seeking candidates with analytics skills and a deep understanding of data.
Take DevSkiller's 2021 IT Skills Report, for instance, which recorded a 295% year-over-year increase in demand for data science skills amongst recruiters on its platform. Demand for Python – another programming language used heavily in data science, albeit one that is far more common than Clojure, f# and Go – also rose sharply, at 154%.
Yet demand for data scientists currently outstrips supply. A survey of nearly 14,000 developers and recruiters by CodinGame and CoderPad in January found that data scientists and machine-learning specialists were amongst the roles companies struggled to hire the most, owing to the small pool of experienced developers with the necessary skillsets. A report by the UK's Royal Society in 2019 warned that demand for data scientists and data engineers had more than tripled over five years.
With demand for data scientists and their unique skillsets rising, it stands to reason that knowledge of highly specialist programming languages used within these fields is associated with higher salaries. The same goes for Rust: this multi-paradigm programming language has become a favourite amongst developers since its conception in 2010, but isn't yet widely used in commercial settings. O'Reilly notes that, despite its lower market demand, "employers interpret knowledge of Rust and Go as a sign of competence and willingness to learn, which increases candidates' value."
While data scientists and machine-learning specialists might be the hot new object of recruiters' desires, there can be no understating the ongoing importance of traditional mobile and web app developers.
Full-stack engineers remain particularly high on businesses' hiring agendas, largely because these professionals are capable of handling both client and server-side code and reduce the need for organizations to hire front-end and back-end developers separately.
Stack Overflow's 2021 Developer Survey found that full-stack developers, front-end developers and back-end developers continue to account for the majority of the global developer workforce. And yet, according to the CodinGame/CoderPad survey, full-stack engineers and back-end engineers remain the most in-demand technical professionals amongst hiring managers. Evidently, the rate at which companies are scaling up their IT operations and rolling out new digital apps has led to intense competition that has left employers struggling to hire the volume of developers they need.
There could be another reason full-stack developers are so difficult to find, likely tied to the ambiguity of the role. "Full-stack developer is a notoriously challenging role to define. The difficulty of defining the role, combined with the unique blend of required skills, makes it an especially hard role to source for," noted HackerRank.
The rise of DevOps
Much as the popularity of certain programming languages, frameworks and technical disciplines has evolved with time, so has the role of the developer itself.
DevOps has garnered increased interest and investment by businesses amid the shift to the cloud and automation, taking it from a technical buzzword to a role that companies are suddenly desperate to fill. According to the Puppet State of DevOps Report 2021, "today, 83% of IT decision-makers report their organization is implementing DevOps practices."
Labelling DevOps as a 'role' is something of a misnomer: really, DevOps is an emerging set of practices adopted by organizations who wish to speed up their development lifecycle by integrating software development (Dev) and IT operations (Ops) functions. "DevOps is whatever you do to bridge friction created by silos, and all the rest is engineering," said Puppet.
SEE: Why DevOps matters
Whatever you might call it, DevOps requires a broad technical skillset spanning software, cloud, automation and security to name but a few, as well as knowledge of software build cycles and Agile development principles. Little wonder that DevSkiller found that professionals who identified themselves as DevOps-skilled were amongst the highest paid in its survey. Dice's 2021 Tech Salary Report put DevOps engineer in a less spectacular 11th place: however, this was out of a total of 30 roles, and with an average salary of $119,201 – up 3.5% from 2020 – this is far from mediocre.
"Regardless of how they define 'DevOps,' thousands of teams now have the ability to deploy software more safely and more quickly. They've moved from being able to deploy software only a couple of times a year to on-demand delivery, with faster remediation times and significantly improved collaboration across function" – Puppet State of DevOps Report 2021
Again, there is a noticeable deficit when it comes to finding highly capable DevOps technologists. HackerRank's Tech Recruiting Benchmark Report identified DevOps engineer as the third most difficult role to find qualified candidates for, below full-stack developers and machine-learning engineers. Likewise, CodinGame/CoderPad's survey came to a similar conclusion, with 28.2% of recruiters reporting that would struggle to find enough DevOps specialists to meet demand in 2022.
Developers themselves are wise to the opportunities that DevOps offers: alongside machine learning, DevOps was among the top skills developers want to learn in 2022, CodinGame/CoderPad found. "DevOps enables remote business activities to be maintained without compromising speed or operational efficiency," said Frederic Desmoulins, co-founder and CEO of CodinGame.
"DevOps encompasses a set of skills and practices (version control, continuous integration, containers/Docker, cloud monitoring and analytics, deployment automation, network protocols), but there is a shortage of developers with this suite of skills to meet the demand, which has exploded in the past 18 months."
What comes next?
With salaries at an all-time high, insatiable demand from employers and the flexibility to work from pretty much anywhere in the world as businesses open themselves up to remote working, it really has never been a better time to be a developer. Increasingly, employers are eschewing the requirement for formal qualifications and certifications, and even rethinking their hiring processes entirely, as business leaders begin to understand the value that technology professionals of all backgrounds can bring to their organization.
Indeed, with the demand for software developers outpacing supply and growing every day, it will be up to businesses and the wider technology industry to figure out how they can continue to meet the demand for tech talent in a world in which digital-first is not only what is expected, but increasingly becoming the norm.
"As companies' tech initiatives shift, so must the technical teams that build them. And that requires agile, adaptive hiring teams to keep up with tech hiring demands. Keeping a close eye on key benchmarks—like evaluation time investment, time-to-hire, and more—ensures that your team manages the transitions smoothly." – HackerRank Tech Recruiting Benchmark Report 2021
Exactly how organizations will achieve this remains to be seen. The acceleration of low-code/no-code tools and automation within industry presents one way by which businesses can digitize some of the key facets of their operations without requiring dedicated in-house developers. Yet the increasingly complex enterprise IT landscape and ever-more ambitious digital transformation initiatives businesses are embarking on suggests that developers will continue to underpin organizations' tech strategy for many years to come.
Whatever the case, the role of the developer continues to evolve. New business needs spurred by COVID-19 have put digitization back at the top of the agenda, and as organizations try to figure out what comes next, it'll be down to developers to steer them towards a new era of digital innovation.