Generative AI now requires developers to stretch cross-functionally. Here's why

AI will help software developers do their jobs better, but it is also increasingly a part of the solutions they will be building for clients or employers.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer
Person looking at code on a screen
Jay Yuno/Getty Images

The rapid embrace of artificial intelligence -- especially generative AI -- not only means changes to developers' workflows, but also modifications to the way they work with the rest of the enterprise. Now that generative AI is part of the picture, software developers need to adapt and work across different team with different functions.

It's already clear that AI will have a significant impact on the future of jobs, productivity, and the way we work in teams. However, while AI is a technology, it's successful adoption and adaptation is not the province of technologists alone. 

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To make the most of AI, many professionals from different disciplines across the business should be involved in its implementation and exploitation.

An AI-intensive world "requires cross-functional teams that include domain experts coupled with developers, data scientists, or business analysts who understand the power of tuning AI to a particular industry," says Luis Flynn, senior manager for AI and analytics at SAS. 

"These are the people who know how to navigate our collective computational wisdom, but can trim the fat and train with smaller data sets tuned for the desired outcomes of a particular business in a specific industry."

Mahesh Saptharishi, CTO of Motorola Solutions, also points to broad range of skills that will be required to help developers and engineers make the most of AI: "The teachers, writers, artists and psychologists of today could very well be our app developers of tomorrow, as skills like coaching and development, understanding behavior and decision-making and effective communication become increasingly important in IT." 

For example, he says there will be a need to work closely with the business to hone prompt-engineering techniques -- "with the expectation that as these models get better, there will be less of a need to engineer the inputs to get the desired outputs."

The requirements for cross-business interaction in an age of AI will also mean changes to the way we work with one another. It's already a common practice in programming "to use code from other sources, and having a bot draft your code isn't much different," says Nick Gausling, managing director of Romy Group and author of Bots in Suits: Using Generative AI to Revolutionize Your Business

"But as anyone in that field knows, a ton of work still happens in QA, maintenance, and upgrades. We'll probably see a much higher demand for product management skills that emphasize bridging the gap between users and developers."

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Yet while AI, and generative AI in particular, promises to reshape the roles and tasks of software developers and other professionals across the business, these are still early days for AI -- and the bounadries for effective cross-functional working are still being drawn.

"Today's generative AI party resembles a middle school dance more than a full-on college bash with a live band," says Flynn. "Developers are rightfully proceeding with caution. Today ChatGPT users can rapidly and casually inquire about any code or syntax so they can begin prototyping applications in moments all from a tiny bit of dialogue. This type of digital push button is simultaneously impressive and scary."

As it stands, Flynn continues, "AI is a digital mirror of what humanity has learned using the internet. And it shows us humanity is inherently flawed. By blindly and hastily leveraging ChatGPT, we can misuse code or -- at the very least -- impose error into our workstreams."

However, when responsibly vetted by seasoned developers, "the potential of generative AI is incredible," Flynn says. "Scrappy data scientists, data engineers and business analysts have mechanisms to fuel their productivity to new levels. But we're not quite there yet."

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AI will increasingly help developers do their jobs better, but we must also remember that this emerging technology is a part of the solutions that IT professionals will be building for their clients or employers. Flynn has recommendations in terms of the skills IT pros should learn and emphasize to succeed in an increasingly AI-intensive world. And once again, cross-business working is crucial.

"A profound understanding of your organizational data and where it fits into your business processes is key," he says. "If you couple data competence with ambition, resourcefulness and a curious approach to problem-solving, things will fall into place."

IT professionals will have various roles themselves as app development and deployment is streamlined, says Flynn -- but they can't afford to work in isolation. "There will always be someone to enforce compliance and uphold the transparency and ethical use of AI. Beyond the fears of privacy and ethical breaches, there will be a need for power user experience advocacy and design. The simplicity of ChatGPT is one of its most impressive features."

Importantly, it will be the job of developers and IT professionals to facilitate the democratization of AI, making it safe, useful, and accessible to all users. Think about the implications of when the metaverse came online, Flynn explained. "The barrier was getting people to buy virtual reality headsets. It's like throwing a destination wedding: If you make it hard to get to, you limit your audience. 

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"There will always be people who understand the human factors involved in any emerging technology. They'll know how to invoke time and space to fold generative AI into everyday workflows. Many of our roles in IT will stay the same, but we'll be more productive because powerful tools like generative AI will be just a click away."

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