Finding & Nurturing The 0.1% Who Could Be Great Software Developers

Finding & Nurturing The 0.1% Who Could Be Great Software Developers
Photo by Rabie Madaci / Unsplash

For 2 decades, I've worked as a software developer, as well as training and coaching developers in the disciplines of software development.

Through my work and through conferences, workshops and other events, I come into contact with hundreds of software developers every year, and I get a good overview of what's going on in our profession.

And a "profession" it most certainly is. While computer programming is relatively easy to pick up, writing software commercially on any appreciable scale takes decades to master.

There is just so much to know, and so many practical skills that take thousands of hours of practice to really get to grips with. As a discipline, software development is every bit as complex and challenging as physics, medicine or teaching, and requires a lifelong commitment to learning, practicing and improving.

Beyond the obvious and many technical skills developers need to keep up to date with, software development also requires a high standard of general education in maths, written and verbal communication skills, and strong-enough general knowledge from which to quickly build a computable understanding of a wide range of problems that software is used to solve.

Year on year, I see the standard of software developers joining the profession slipping. They tend to be not quite so good with the technical skills, not quite so good at communicating, not quite so proficient with maths and logic, and not quite as well-informed and worldy-wise.

Companies that hire young software developers are finding it harder and harder every year to recruit people of the right calibre. I work with some clients on recruitment, and I've been finding that - on average - perhaps 1 in 100 software developers that might apply for a job are really up to snuff. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your Prince Coding.

The impact of this on the businesses who rely on software developers, which, these days, is pretty much all of the FTSE500, can be profoundly damaging. While the media cries over the lack of good talent available to the computer games industry and "digital creative media", they completely overlook the fact that the bulk of our economy has been "digital" for decades - with computers playing an increasingly central role in the operations of all organisations that have to do things on a large scale.

If Acme Supermarket Plc has to wait to start a software project until they've found a team good enough to deliver, then Acme have to wait to roll out changes to the way their business operates. I've seen first-hand household British brands brought to their knees by delays in new IT. These days, your ability to create and adapt software systems is a very limiting factor on the ability of your business to adapt and stay competitive.

The importance of software development to the UK goes far beyond business, though. Our entire scientific and engineering base is very heavily reliant on software that has to be written specially. Increasingly, we find the lack of software development skills in science is holding UK R&D; back. Our future prosperity and quality of life depends on our ability to discover and to innovate.

For all these reasons, I see programming in schools as an imperative. We desperately need new talent. Not just games companies like Eidos, or special effects companies like The Mill. We all need the decline in Britain's software development capability to be reversed.

My theory is this: hidden among the millions of children in school right now are maybe 1,000 who would make amazing software developers. And they, and we, may never know it. Not only could they be robbed of a potentially very rewarding and personally fulfilling career, but we would all be robbed of the fruits of their labour.

1,000 really great software developers entering the profession every year could, over a decade or so, tip the balance.

Firstly because the best software developers tend to be an order of magnitude more productive and creative than the average, so 1,000 great developers could achieve the same as 10,000 so-so developers.

Secondly because the more great developers come into the profession, making it easier for employers to find good people, the more the so-so developers will be forced to raise their game to stay in work.

We need to find out who these 1,000 kids are. We need to give as many children as possible the chance to find out for themselves whether programming is for them. For the vast majority, it won't be. But for that 0.1% who may find they really enjoy it, and have a real talent for it, we would be shooting our economy in the foot by not giving them the chance to discover programming - and ultimately software development - for themselves.

And once they've been identified, we must move mountains to fuel their passion and remove all obstacles to their development as, well, developers. This will require focused, targeted collaborations between practitioners like me, and the software development community of which I'm a part, as well as schools, teachers, parents, employers, the media, and everyone else who has a stake in the outcome.

I don't much care for kids being made to learn "computer science" (which is not the same thing, by the way). That sort of thing can come later, for those children who - fuelled by burning curiosity and desire to do more, go further and build better software - seek it out. It should be there waiting for them.

First, we need to give as many children as possible the chance to try programming. Not for its own sake, but because you can make cool stuff with code. Programming as "making cool stuff" should be the dominant model until that 0.1% reveal themselves, and then we can start talking theory and maths and discipline.

For my own part, I'll be focusing this year on getting kids coding, by finding support for teachers who want to learn more through a teacher-practitioner coaching programme, and also by devising "cool projects" for kids and for schools with themes ranging from pop music to alien hunting.

I'll also be working with the developer community to start fleshing out a framework for identifying and nurturing that little nugget of raw talent that may emerge.

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