Why Citizen Developers Are The Future Of Programming

If you ever wondered what would scare the bejeezus out of a university's computer science department, try this: In June, Google revealed that it no longer considers GPA scores as a hiring criteria. 

“One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that GPA's are worthless as a criteria for hiring,” Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, told the New York Times

To students who have been told their university grades are paramount, that's a big shock. But to anybody watching the tech industry, such a statement was inevitable. It's a reaction to the quickly evolving definition of what it means to be a professional programmer.

The “Citizen Developer”

When Google executives look at prospective hires’ portfolios instead of test scores, it expands the playing field beyond “anyone with a degree” to “anyone with skills.” Google no longer cares whether you picked up coding in school or just by teaching yourself, so long as you have the work and talent to back it up. 

It’s a phenomenon that the tech world is calling the rise of the “citizen developer.” A phrase coined by technology research firm Gartner, the citizen developer is “an end user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT.” Or, in less of a mouthful, a non-traditionally educated programmer who uses the same skills as the formally trained pros. 

Back in 2011, Gartner predicted that by 2014, citizen developers would build at least 25 percent of new business applications. Two years later, we associate programming success with college dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, or with people like Tumblr CEO David Karp, who didn’t even enroll in college. 

The sort of creativity and problem solving that allows star programmers to succeed isn’t exactly encouraged in the artificial and conforming environment of a college classroom. So it makes sense that Google would look outside the GPA for the best talent. 

Tons of Jobs, Few Developers

Imagine if you could learn a skill that would practically guarantee you a high-paying job within months. Increasingly, that’s exactly the narrative that surrounds non-traditional programming education. 

At Code Fellows, if you don’t have a job offer that pays $60K a year within six months of completing their four-week boot camp, you get a full refund. A 2012 Living Social effort called Hungry Academy actually paid people to attend their five-month boot camp and learn to program for Living Social. 

Boot camps and other forms of non-traditional programming education can afford to be cocky for the very reason that the job market supports such bravado. In 2010, there were 913,000 U.S. jobs for software developers and that number is expected to grow by 30% from 2012 to 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, the predicted rise for all occupational growth over that same period is just 14%. 

As our dependence on technology only grows, our demand for developers is increasing. At a time where the average developer gets four to five job offers in her career, that means some companies are going without. 

The Self-Taught Coding Movement

It certainly helps that opportunities for teaching yourself to code are more numerous, convenient and accessible than ever. Combine that with widespread alarm about student loan debt, and you can instantly see the appeal of self-teaching. 

Ryan Carson, CEO of Treehouse, said that the coding education company has reached the milestone of 37,000 active, paying students—about the size of a large university. Not surprisingly, he thinks companies like Treehouse offer a better education than traditional degrees would. 

“A computer science degree is a rip off,” he told me. “I know because I have one.”

The difference? Carson says Treehouse has the data to prove whether students are ready for the workforce, something colleges can’t do. It does this through a point system that awards students for completing assignments on Treehouse.

“We’ve placed thousands of students in programming jobs, and the companies who hire them report back to us,” he said. “So we can say with authority that if you get 1500 points on Treehouse, we can place you in a job where you’ll have an 80% chance of success. And you just can’t do that now in universities."

What About Traditional Education?

Not surprisingly, college professors believe as much in the longevity of the computer science degree as entrepreneurs like Carton believe in non-traditional learning. 

However, Francois Pitt, a senior lecturer at the University of Toronto, told me that learn-to-code boot camps aren’t even competition to a computer science degree because they have completely different end goals. 

“It’s not so much competition with us as a complement,” he said. “Programming is just the starting point of what computer science is about. We don’t just teach students how to code. We study programs and the problems they solve.”

Pitt compares the difference between having a computer science degree and knowing how to program as the difference between being a professional writer and knowing how to write. The important thing isn’t so much that you know English, but that you have interesting ideas and know how to structure them well, he said. 

There’s something romantic about Pitt’s description of computer science’s in-depth theories. The difference students are going to have to look for? Whether they want the whole story or just a job ASAP. 

“People getting into these programs need to realize that you’re not getting the same education as you would out of a degree,” he said. “Computer science is about so much more than just programming.”

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.