Research: Developers are Trusted By The Business But The Alignment is Not Felt Evenly Across Different Generations

Welcome to the first in a series of in-depth articles looking at the developer’s role in the modern organisation. In this first post: a new generation has arrived. As organisations shift to becoming technology-focused, developers’ roles have evolved so that they are now playing a crucial role in decision making across their businesses. However, all this newfound alignment isn’t so keenly felt across the whole developer workforce...

It was the 80s. I was a young developer at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). DEC was huge, second only to IBM, and it was wedded to a proprietary operating system called VMS. But I knew better. I posted to the public bulletin board (80’s Slack) that the best thing DEC could do was stop all investment in VMS and move all new development to Ultrix. The advice didn’t go down well. I was made to stand tall before the man. For a while, I was worried I would be fired. Not one of the senior leadership asked me why our development team were so adamant that VMS had already lost the race.

Back then, the disdain for dissenting developer opinions did not make DEC an outlier. Far from it.

Thankfully, things have changed. Leap forward 30 years and developers have been crowned the new Kingmakers, more influential and critical than ever before. As IDC’s recent headline chirps: “Developers Wield Enormous Influence in the Age of Kubernetes, Containers, and Cloud”. It’s a good thing too. If technology is going to be a company’s competitive differentiator it makes sense for people who understand technology to be involved in the decision making.

As many of you will have experienced – there has long been a perceived divide between the developers on the ground, and the suits making decisions about procurement, research, and the future. To better understand the modern influence of developers in the real world, we conducted research with 760 developers and 756 IT decision-makers (ITDMs - see details below*), looking to add proof to the perception of the historic chasm between the groups. We were wrong. What we found was a new alignment between two camps previously at odds. We also discovered that those developers who started their careers in the early 2000s were far more likely to feel aligned with decision-makers than their older colleagues who started working life in the 90s or earlier. The new influential and trusted developer generation has arrived - but the effects are not evenly distributed.

Alignment on Outcomes

Writing code is fun. At times its art. However, for most of us, most of the time, we’re also doing it for an organisational purpose, a customer need. The cultural myth was that developers didn’t always grasp this wider business picture. If it was ever true, it’s not anymore.

Developers are bought into the commercial requirements of their employers. Almost 94% of devs told us that they understand the commercial priorities of the business they work in. Even better, more than 88% of ITDMs agree. That’s a landslide.

Do you think that IT decision makers and developers are aligned when it comes to IT decisions within the business where you work?

This was what consensus alignment looks like

This alignment on commercial priorities flowed through to the actual decision making. More than 90% of developers admitted that ITDMs make the right decision when procuring new software and – if you can believe it – that’s more than the ITDMs said for themselves, with 89% agreeing.

Do decision makers generally make the right decision when procuring a new software or platform for use in the business where you work?

It seems logical, doesn’t it? If we’re all about increasing productivity then it makes sense to include the builders and producers within the decisions. History gives us countless lessons of where this wisdom has been heeded but, for one, take car manufacturing. Germany has made its decisions along productivity lines for years. So have Japan. They’ve become the most successful car making regions of our generation. Developers should be emboldened to use their influence in the organisation. Of course, that trust means developers shoulder more responsibility for the strategic decisions, good or bad.

Head of Digital Technology & Engineering at Nationwide, Richard James, talks about how the company’s culture has changed over the years to become more aligned with developers to better serve its customers.

Generational Differences

There was another very interesting wrinkle to our data. Age plays a recurring and consistent factor in opinion. Developers whose careers got started somewhere between 2000 and 2016 believe there’s more alignment and positivity than their older and younger counterparts. It feels like it’s no coincidence that this is right as developers’ influence was increasing within organisations. (Data health warning: as we cut the data into demographics the samples get smaller and therefore slightly less conclusive. See the note below on our thoughts there**). Let’s get into this trend a little more: 93% of 25 to 44 year old developers think ITDMs and developers are aligned when it comes to strategic decisions. For 55+ this dropped dramatically to 62%.

Do you think that IT decision makers and developers are aligned when it comes to IT decisions within the business where you work? (Developers by age)

We saw the same trend on approved technology lists. Surprising us again, overall both developers and IT decision-makers felt that approved technology lists were useful. A fact I suspect means that approved technology lists are finally starting to move faster and be more diverse.

An employer’s approved technologies and software lists help developers to build the best possible applications for the company’s business needs? (Developers by age)

However, when we broke down the developer views by generations, it was clear the positivity came mainly from that modern generation.

So what?

There are many factors at play with this data, not least seniority and workplace experience, but it does smell like there’s something going on.

Perhaps this generation has just had it better? When you pay someone a lot of money, you pay more attention to them. Perhaps older developers have been through enough cycles to view everything with a healthily cynical eye. Perhaps they’re not as excited by new bean bags, beer taps and foosball in the office?

Younger versus Older Developers

Here’s what I think. We do need to spend some time listening to our elders and betters and understanding why they’re not feeling as aligned. They definitely know something we don’t. It’s possible that, in our youth obsessed industry, the benefits of the developer generation are not evenly distributed.

Getting it Right

If I relived my experience at DEC in 2019 I do wonder what the outcome might be. The moral to the story is that four years after I shared the consensus of developer opinion, DEC ran out of money and was sold for a song to Compaq. Unix begat Linux and the rest is history. I was just one of many canaries in that particular coal mine that went ignored. I don’t claim that if only they had listened to us, then things would be different. Technology and history is too complex for that.

But it’s clear from the data that organisations are learning their lessons. We’re becoming more enlightened and aligned. Decision-makers are closer to the tech. Developers are closer to the decisions. Now the responsibility is on developers to get it right.

Data background

* In June we surveyed 1516 people split evenly across France, Germany and the UK. There were two groups we spoke to – developers and IT decision makers.

Developers were defined as ‘An individual that builds and creates software applications. Their role includes writing, debugging and executing the code of an application’.

IT Decision Maker, which I know is a slightly made-up industry term, were defined as ‘an employee who is empowered to make strategic IT decisions within a company including (but not limited to): recruitment processes for IT professionals, procurement of new IT software and hardware, technologically-focussed R&D decisions, data management and data security.’

If you'd like to see the full data set or embed any of these charts, then just email me at joe.drumgoole@mongodb.com.

** As we looked at the demographic data the sample sizes get smaller. Sometimes falling below 50 people. That’s not as statistically sound as the full sample. However, looking through the data and the trends we found we felt it was still consistent enough and significant enough to be useful and start the conversation. It’s not the gospel, it’s not the final say, it’s just indicative of a possible trend.