Why Developers Are Such Cheap Bastards

You develop software for a living. Why are you such a cheap bastard?

We’re not talking about your personal spending habits. If you are any good at what you do, you probably make a fair amount of money and spend it on whatever catches your fancy. 

We’re talking about the tools you use to do your job. Developers expect, no, demand free tools and services to do their jobs. Whether it is analytic services, integrated development environments (IDEs), application programming interfaces (APIs) or software developer kits (SDKs), developers almost always refuse to pay for the tools they use to do their jobs. Many developers would rather go out of their way to build their own tools or use bug-ridden free tools than plunk down the money it would take to buy a service or subscription that could actually help them do their jobs more efficiently.

Oxymoron: Developer-Focused Businesses Models

The Mobile Revolution as we know it is about six years old now. About halfway through it in 2010, lots of companies saw an opportunity to make apps for the rush of developers building apps for the Apple App Store and (as it was called then) Android Market. The idea was to make their lives easier and make some money at the same time in a nascent market. 

We saw a bunch of startups and (a little bit later) enterprise technology companies move to provide tools for these mobile developers. Companies like Localytics, Kinvey, StackMob, Appcelerator, appMobi, Sencha and many more all had the idea of providing developers with tools to help them do their jobs. Almost all of them have shifted their business models away from the “developer tools” avenue of making money. Because developers just don’t want to pay. 

Appcelerator, StackMob and Kinvey have gone with an enterprise-focused business model. Localytics' prime target is to sell to marketers that crave data to do their jobs. appMobi sold its HTML5 developers tools to Intel. Sencha makes money by, among other things, selling cloud services to developers (a common theme with several of these companies). Enterprises and marketers pay for data, tools and services. Developers? Not so much.

The Culture Of Free

Developers are spoiled. The big platforms basically give them all the tools they need for free. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook basically give their tools to developers, hoping to entice them to write for their platforms. In Microsoft’s case, sometimes they even straight out pay developers to build for Windows or Windows Phone and entice them with thousands of dollars of free tools. 

Almost by nature, developers can be arrogant, stubborn people. It makes them good at their jobs. But it also means that they almost always won’t use something that is not free or open source. They will spend a week building something that they could pay for out of the box and have running in an hour. 

Developers have come to expect free. In an odd, preternatural kind of way, they gravitate toward it. And the tech industry enables them to do it. The goodies at developer conferences like Google I/O are always tasty treats for developers (this year they all got expensive Chromebook Pixels, last year a smartphones and tablets). For the big software companies, it is about building a community around their brand and getting developers to publish apps and services for their platforms. Part of the core mission for Google at this year’s I/O was to update the Google Play Developer Console to give developers a suite of free tools like a new Android-focused IDE, analytics and translations services.  

“As we give them more tools to make it easier to make great aps, they can try out more stuff,” said Google’s Ellie Powers in a recent interview with ReadWrite. “The basics are covered, people are generally very happy, they are giving us tremendous feedback on our product and great tools that we give them.”

The Red Tape Of Paid Tools

If has become fairly clear that developers – from the hobbyist to the professional developer studio to the enterprise-level wonk – hate paying for tools. Sometimes that has to do with their budgets (or lack thereof). Sometimes they think they can do better themselves. 

Developer focused site Stack Overflow had a great discussion on the topic a couple years ago. One developer, Erik B. sums up the problem with buying software tools in an enterprise nicely:

If I find a non-free tool I might be able to download a free trial, without telling the boss, but if I want to buy the full version of the tool I'll definitely gonna have to talk to my boss and he's not just gonna give it to me. I'm gonna have to motivate why I need it. He is definitely gonna ask if there are any free alternatives and "I don't know." is not a good enough answer. So if I want the non-free tool I'm gonna have to evaluate all the free tools first.

What Developers Will Pay For

If you can’t get developers to pay for tools, what the heck can you get them to pay for?

Services and subscriptions. More appropriately, the cloud.

Amazon pulls this off perfectly. They offer a lot of free SDKs and APIs, especially around its Appstore development program for the Kindle Fire. Once Amazon has its hooks into the developer, it can then push them to pay for cloud hosting and computing through Amazon Web Services.

In many ways, it is kind of a “freemium” model targeted at developers (which is ironic considering it is usually the developers that target freemium models on consumers). Get them in with the free tools, charge them for the cloud. This was essentially the model that appMobi used when it developed its litany of free HTML5 development tools. It would design for HTML5 and then sell developers cloud services to host and run their apps. 

When Developers Should Pay For Tools

In a recent conversation with a developer friend, the topic of developers being cheap bastards came up. He said his rationale for when to pay for tools was fairly simple. If a developer is making around $80,000 a year, they are worth (depending on the scale) about $300 a day (considering time off for weekends and holidays). This scale slides, of course, but take the numbers as an example. So, if a developer downloads free software tools or tries to build them on their own, they are taking time out of their day from what is their normal job to configure those tools.

Say a developer tool from a reputable source costs $300 and will work out of the box. If a developer wants to create a workaround, they should no more than one day on it. Otherwise it is no longer cost efficient to not buy the off-the-shelf product. Essentially, a developer should spend no more than one day trying to configure or build their own tools. 

Developers: When do you pay for tools? Which ones do you pay for? Let us know in the comments.