Software development is changing again. These are the skills companies are looking for

Rather than honing capabilities in a single programming language, developers must create a large kit bag of skills that can be applied broadly in a hybrid-working world.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

While almost-constant digital transformation means software development still plays a crucial role in modern businesses, successful developers are as likely to excel in personal attitude as they are in technical aptitude.

Long gone are the days when a great software developer was defined by their capability in a single programming language. Today, good developers work across the stack – in fact, their success relies on their ability to engage with a range of stakeholders to deliver business outcomes, says Spencer Clarkson, chief technology officer at Verastar.

"I think what makes a good developer nowadays is that rounded understanding," he says. "They need to be agile in working style, and also understand the concept of doing Agile development – fail fast, develop quickly." 

That's something that others recognise, too. Tech analyst Forrester says Agile delivery is critical to successful digital transformations, yet the best enterprises go even further. Just 47% of less successful firms have 75% or more of their development teams using Agile software development practices compared to 93% of successful companies.

SEE: What is Agile software development? Everything you need to know about delivering better code, faster

In the case of Verastar, which provides a range of business services to more than 160,000 small businesses across the UK, Clarkson says the long-term success of his company is directly related to the ability of talented IT staff to deliver great data-led services to clients.

"And so, for us, a good developer thinks about why they want to change or build something, but also makes sure they understand the data and how that's going to be presented as information on the glass to the user," he says.

Clarkson recognises that this focus on business outcomes and customer requirements is a sharp break from the past. He has developed a broad base of coding skills during his own career and can program in as many as 20 different languages.

However, his IT leadership responsibilities mean he's unlikely to get his hands dirty with code these days. More to the point, he also doesn't want his staff to spend all their time coding – and, if they do code, he certainly doesn't expect them to specialise in one language.

"I think having a single programming capability is not the way forward today," he says. "I think you've got to be able to turn your hand to any language, construct or framework." 

Clarkson says software developers should meld an aptitude in object-orientated languages, such as Java, C++, C# or Python, with a business outcomes-focused understanding of modern technology integration concepts, such as microservices and cloud-based computing. 

"Software development is now much more about gluing things together rather than building something from scratch," he says. "There's lots of good apps and products out there. It's how you glue them together – that's your IP. People need to have that aptitude first and be multiskilled second."

Gartner also says organisations and their employees should be prepared to move in multiple strategic directions at once due to the ongoing requirements for innovation and digitisation. The analyst predicts a shift to more autonomous styles of working over the next three years as organisations adopt remote and hybrid-working models.

SEE: With 900,000 developers, here's where the next big startup ecosystem will be

The new normal means developers will work in a variety of ways with a broad church of partners. As well as internal developers, Verastar uses outsourced capability and works closely with some key digital transformation partners, including Salesforce.

"We have a very hybrid team. People need to learn to work together and across different teams. We bring everything together with Agile and sprints. Working in a virtual world means it's very rare you're all sat together in the same office now," says Clarkson,  

"And that's certainly the case with us. Although we've got a centre in Sale, Manchester, we've got developers that work remote, our partner works remotely, and there'll be based either nearshore or offshore as well, so you can end up with quite a wide team."

Dal Virdi, IT director at legal firm Shakespeare Martineau, is another tech chief who recognises that a successful modern IT team relies on a hybrid blend of internal developers and external specialists.

Virdi recognised about 18 months ago that his firm's ongoing digital transformation strategy, and the way in which the business was introducing a broad range of technologies, meant they didn't need to have internal specialists focused on one language or platform.  

"We need a broader set of architectural and engineering skills," he says. "So, we need them to be the best that they can be, but we also need them to cover all of our landscape." 

Virdi says he's augmented his internal development teams with external development partners. Shakespeare Martineau uses these partners' resources on an ongoing basis to support some of the things the business is keen to develop. 

"For example, we have a testing partner that supports us with all of the testing that we do with all of our new systems and services," he says. "We augment many of our services now to bring in the levels of expertise that we need to give us those accelerators on our journey, to move forward and to do things with different technologies."

For Virdi, the key to success is augmenting internal talent in the most effective and cost-efficient way possible: "If we can buy in the services, and take away some of the internal overheads, then that's what we're looking at."

Of course, the changing nature of software development – with more focus on broader objectives and less time on single projects – means CIOs will have to work hard to ensure that talented software developers are happy with this new way of working.

Adam Miller, group head of IT at Markerstudy Group, says the key to retaining and attracting new talent is giving people interesting pieces of work to get their teeth stuck into. "To be honest, there's quite a diverse set of activities that we've got going on, so I'm lucky in that respect," he says. 

However, Miller also recognises that keeping software developers happy isn't just about focusing on their current projects. Talented staff will need to know that, as the nature of IT work continues to change, so does the opportunity to develop and flex their own skills. 

"That's about supporting their ongoing training and development and exposure to newer technologies. Everyone wants to learn what's new and they want to be ready for what's coming up," says Miller. 

"So, being able to do combine those two factors – looking at new things, working on interesting pieces of work – is crucial, as well as paying people fairly and respecting their requirements for work/life balance as much as you can. I think they're the all-important aspects for creating a healthy working environment."

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