An ode to code warriors: What’s it like being a software developer today?

What’s it like being a software developer these days? What kinds of tools and skills do they need to perform their jobs? How much can they earn? These kinds of questions have interested me for a while, so when the opportunity came for me to preview the latest Skill Up survey report issued by Packt Publishing, I grabbed it even though my primary area of IT expertise is network and system administration, not software development. After all, since as IT pros whose job it is to build, manage, and maintain the infrastructure (on-premises or cloud) the sandbox that developers can play in, we better make sure the walls of our sandboxes are sturdy and they’re full of nice, clean sand!

What I especially value about the Packt Skill Up surveys, which is something they’ve been doing now every year since 2015, is that the pool of talented developers and IT professionals they survey is both large (over 8,000 respondents in the latest survey) and very broad (it currently includes North America, Europe, and Asia). The surveys also gather information on an array of topics ranging from various industry trends to the skills, toolsets, and salaries of their developer audience. The full survey results are more than 40 pages long and for this article, I’m just going to highlight a couple of the key points I felt were most illuminating or significant as I reviewed them. And I’ll also point out some similarities these days between the life of a software developer and the grind of the sysadmin.

Primary job role

software developer
The survey found that one-third of the developers contacted viewed their primary job responsibility as backend development. A second third of the audience (and one that overlaps the first third to some extent) are developers who indicated they were “full-stack developers,” meaning their responsibilities involved developing everything from the frontend to the backend of the application/services chain.

This reminded me of the job role of the typical IT pro in two ways. First, in large enterprises, doing IT is really all about managing the backend infrastructure of servers, databases, and plumbing (LAN, WAN, WLAN, and so on). Once the clients are rolled out and the infrastructure for deploying client applications is put into place, the role of the sysadmin is simple because “If our backend is running then everyone should be happy. And if they’re not they can call helpdesk, not me.” It’s not surprising, therefore, that developers in an enterprise environment should be concentrated to some extent on developing the backend services and databases that support frontend applications and user interfaces because developers and IT pros are really just two sides of the same coin. In fact, you can’t have a coin with only one side, right?!

The other way the respondents’ primary job role compares with IT pros is the “jack-of-all-trades” impression that the moniker “full-stack software developer” suggests, and rightly so! After all, what does a full-stack software developer need to know nowadays?

  • JavaScript
  • Python
  • Ruby
  • Docker
  • Git
  • Databases
  • Data structures
  • SOAP
  • REST

And so on. The list is practically endless and constantly growing as well. Doesn’t this remind you a bit of the skillset of a typical IT pro? We need to be familiar with operating systems, patch management, networking, scripting, firewalls, deployment, incident response, disaster recovery, and so on. Plus, we’re expected to be experts on private clouds, public clouds, hybrid clouds, bodacious clouds, and so on. Another endless list of tasks and jobs that make up our jack-of-all-trades job role of managing and maintaining everything so the business can keep earning revenue.

The revenue dumbbell

And speaking of earning revenue, one trend that the latest Skill Up survey found among those surveyed is that developers seem to be becoming more and more polarized into two camps. Specifically, they tend to either earn good money (quantified in the survey as annual salaries of $90,000 or higher) or poor money ($30,000 or less). And this surprising trend was weighted more heavily toward the low end of the spectrum, giving the dumbbell an unbalanced look and feel.

(As an aside, I frequently work out with dumbbells and have talked a lot about using them properly in FitITproNews, a newsletter I started a year ago here at TechGenix to help “fat IT pros” become “fit IT pros” and which goes out each week to the same audience of more than 500,000 IT pros who subscribe to our popular long-running WServerNews newsletter. If you’re not subscribed to WServerNews or FitITproNews you can do so by going here.)

And what exactly did the Skill Up survey reveal about the earnings of the two most popular job roles described? “Both top earners and low earners are most likely to have a job in full-stack or backend development,” the survey report said. In other words, if you’ve worked hard to master the tools needed to develop the full application stack, you’re likely to end up earning either more than $90,000 or less than $30,000. Which suggests to me one thing: There are some cushy jobs out there in relatively established companies for expert full-stack developers, but there are also a lot of jobs with startups and smaller companies where the full set of developer skills is still needed but the money just isn’t there to pay for them. Which also tells me that it’s not just tech skills that lead to earnings success but also personality and character, the ability to work well with a team, and be reliable and accept responsibility.

With IT pros, I think things are a little different. Most IT pros who work within companies are relatively insulated from the rest of the company. They either work alone or as part of an IT department where responsibilities are divided and assigned. In other words, teamwork and communications skills are not as big a need to succeed within an IT pro job role as they are in today’s agile software developer environment. The cloud is changing that as it pushes IT administration toward becoming less conservative and more agile, but it’s easier (and cheaper) to blow away an application and develop a new one to replace it than it is to rip out and rebuild infrastructure (whether physical or virtual). This is probably why the dumbbell salary grouping doesn’t seem to appear as often in the IT pro salary market as it seems to be manifesting itself in the world of the developer nowadays.

Are you a software developer? Get the full report

The above are just a couple of the thoughts that ruminated themselves into my little gray cells as I pondered over the Packt Skill Up survey report for 2018. If you’re a software developer or a manager who has responsibilities for developers, I recommend that you download and read the full report so you can draw some of your own conclusions from the useful information that Packt has gathered from developers around the world.

Featured image: Pexels

1 thought on “An ode to code warriors: What’s it like being a software developer today?”

  1. Hello Mitch,

    I’m a huge fan of yours and this is a brilliant article “love it”.

    Kind regards,
    Saverino from South Africa.

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