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October 7, 2016updated 12 Oct 2016 11:53am

The script-writers of the future: In-demand developers & the boom in tech hiring by IT

CBR's Ellie Burns talks to Kevin Troy at Stack Overflow, about the market for developers in the UK - the challenges in hiring, common mistakes when recruiting and the potential Brexit impact on the market.

By Ellie Burns

EB: UK demand for developers – can you give me an overview of the market today?

KT: The unemployment rate amongst UK developers is incredibly low — less than 2%. Of those who are employed, very few are actively looking for jobs — when we surveyed developers in January, only 13% of those who were employed in the UK were actively looking for jobs, and that figure was only 10% for those who were already full-time employed. That means that it’s especially hard for employers to recruit them compared to other commercial roles.


Kevin Troy, Stack Overflow

Kevin Troy is Director of Developer Insights at Stack Overflow.

EB: What sort of companies are currently hiring – traditional tech firms, banks, consultancies?

KT: Everyone! Developers are writing the script for the future — there’s no part of our society that can work without code touching their lives. So yes, there’s a boom in tech hiring by IT- and software-centric firms, banks, and consultancies — but there’s also high demand for software developers from manufacturing, retail, pharmaceuticals, and other sectors.


EB: What are the main challenges in hiring developers in today’s market?

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KT: Simple supply and demand is a challenge, as I’ve described above. Beyond that, it’s also becoming harder for companies and agencies with lower budgets to compete with the big tech employers of this world. The salaries offered by the likes of Google and Facebook are impossible for most businesses to match. So employers have to consider other ways to attract talent. For a small startup, that’s often the opportunity to “get in on the ground floor” and have a strong influence on product development. For a large industrial firm or a government agency, it might be job security and a more relaxed schedule.

On our most recent developer survey, the top three things that UK developers said they were looking for in a new job are salary, work-life balance and company culture. If an employer wants to improve their developer hiring strategy, they can look to these three things.


EB: What are the common mistakes companies make when hiring developers?

KT: Many recruiters, frankly, don’t invest the time required to understand developers or approach them in a way that’s respectful of how busy and in-demand they are. Internet forums for developers (including, but not limited to, Stack Overflow) are full of stories of recruiters treating developers in a rather high-handed way.

A related phenomenon is recruiters who don’t know enough of the basics of the technologies involved to set appropriate resumé screening criteria or hold a phone screen interview that makes it sound, to a developer, like this is a company that takes software seriously.  A common cause of eye-rolling by developers, for example, is requiring “10+ years’ experience” in a technology that didn’t exist until five years ago.


EB: Are you seeing UK companies predominantly hiring from within the EU, or outside the EU?

KT: Currently, they’re hiring from within the EU — but that may change somewhat, depending on what Brexit ends up looking like.


EB: How do you think hiring trends will change after Brexit?

KT: It’s really hard to say until we know more about what Brexit will look like, exactly.  The negotiations between the May government and the EU haven’t even begun yet.

If it’s a “hard” exit, where work visas become hard to obtain, I think many firms will think very seriously about opening development centers on the Continent or in Ireland, so as to be able to access talent from across the EU.

I think what’s more interesting, is that some of the most successful companies employ remote workers from around the world — in fact, it’s something that we do at Stack Overflow.  It used to be that there were a lot of technological barriers to doing that, but these days the main barriers are company policies and company culture. Less than 10% of the companies we work with in the UK post jobs that allow remote developers, and the ones that do tend to be very small and very new.  But Brexit might force larger, more mainstream firms to give remote work a hard look as something they might want to take on.


EB: What do you think the developer of the future will look like? What skills will they require?

KT: We’re seeing a few trends, but like all fortune tellers, you should take this with a grain of salt.

The “average” developer today probably isn’t very comfortable with machine learning or data science. But those disciplines are becoming “baked” into more and more applications and services. Much the same way that almost any developer today has to work with some SQL occasionally — even if he or she isn’t an expert on databases — most developers tomorrow will have to occasionally work with some machine learning or data modeling code.

stackoverflow2There are lots of touch points that developers need to be familiar with. As more and more applications move to cloud-based servers, developers will require an increasing facility with programming and troubleshooting in those environments. Additionally, your software is going to be used in a wide variety of places, and this will mean developers need to know a broader range of languages. For example, you want users of the iPhone version of your music-streaming app to have the same experience as the Android tablet users, and the same for the people who are listening through an airplane seatback device or in the browser on their desktop.

That said, development tasks and environments are becoming increasingly specialised. We’ve seen, for example, the emergence of devops and site reliability engineering as specialisations in recent years. The game development company Valve Software talks about hiring “T-shaped” individuals — people with deep knowledge in a given area, and shallow knowledge in many others — as their strategy for developing their organisation. In an environment with increasing technical and commercial complexity, that’s a smart strategy for building your development team.


EB: What skills are most in-demand today for developers?

KT: We shouldn’t overlook soft skills. Our CEO, Joel Spolsky, has long maintained that the ability to write well, and an understanding of microeconomics, are critical to being a great developer. Being able to clearly communicate with your team and users, and knowing enough about how markets work to have an inkling of what features will actually add value for customers, help make sure you develop the right features, and deploy them in a commercially appropriate way (on time, within budget, and on spec).


EB: What languages do employers today want to see from developers – why?

KT: The most highly-demanded languages from employers in the UK in job listings on Stack Overflow are (in order) JavaScript, Java, C#, Python, and PHP. All of those, of course, are used in web development, and many of them have applications for desktop and/or mobile applications as well.

In terms of what employers would like to see on the resumés of entry-level developers, the key is to have a strong facility in more than one language, and to show that you can build a project that connects “layers” that may be written in different languages. It’s not entirely important which languages those are, so long as you understand their relative strengths and weaknesses, and which types of applications they might be appropriate for. It also helps to show an interest in relatively new technologies — what you really want to prove to a prospective employer is that you’re willing to try new things and learn new skills.


EB: Are there specific areas, like Big Data or IoT, which has caused the surge for developer demand?

KT: At the most abstract level, what’s caused the surge in demand are the decreases in the costs of manufacturing hardware and delivering it to customers — Moore’s Law plus global supply chains plus high-speed broadband equals phenomenally cheap devices, nearly everywhere.

What the explosion in software development is doing is building on that hardware platform to increase the value consumers and businesses get out of those devices. And that creates a virtuous cycle, where the value can increase even more through more software. That then creates an opportunity to heighten value by writing more software….  That, essentially, is what the explosion of APIs over the last 10 years has been about, as well as the development of data science as a key part of savvy organisations’ value-creation strategies.

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