Three percent of global GDP is accounted for by creative industries. With revenues at $2.3 trillion, this is an industry bigger than telecom services, and which employs 1 percent of the planet’s population. But these numbers would be far larger if they included a group of people who, although frequently the invisible drivers of creative sub-sectors like film and gaming, are not thought of as creatives: software engineers.
It is difficult to work out exactly how many developers there are in the world – because so many work as amateurs – but estimates range from 20m to 35m. In the UK alone, 292,000 people work officially as programmers and software developers. To put that into perspective, according to the General Medical Council’s latest figures, there are 281,000 doctors registered in the UK. I would like to make the case that we need to start seeing programmers and developers as true creatives – akin to actors and artists. Not just because of what they do now, but because of the role the technology they build will have in shaping the future.
Developers are more of a special breed than those of us employing them may realise. In many businesses, they are seen as the workhorses – robots who can complete assigned tasks: “we need this thing built”; “this issue needs fixing; make it happen”. This black-box approach ignores a fundamental fact about software engineering: that it is not functional, but problem-solving – an inherently creative occupation. How many financiers do you know who leave the office, go home, and spend the evening doing the same work for fun? For most developers, their career is also their passion. Over a quarter of UK developers, for example, are self-taught, with no formal coding education, and explains the millions of amateurs worldwide. What they do is not just a job; many simply cannot imagine doing anything else. In this respect, they are creatives.
Little wonder, then, that leaving a corporate developer job to go and work for a startup has been the common theme for the last decade. Most developers want to build things and do so at speed, without having to deal with red tape, politics and highly risk-averse environments. And it’s not salary that individuals move for: a 2017 survey from Coding Sans found that only 10 percent of startups rely on high salaries to woo developers. On the other hand, 79 percent rely on offering interesting tasks – the opportunity to take on a challenge. Perhaps what most marks them out as creatives, however, is that developers who have been responsible for building the world’s most pivotal technologies often have had no inclination of what they were even trying to build.
Take the workplace communication tool Slack, and its founder Stewart Butterfield. Slack, which now has over 6m users, started its life as a way for Butterfield and his co-developers to collaborate on a game they were creating. There was no grand strategy to transform the way businesses communicate internally, or to build a $1bn company on the back of it. Similarly, Dropbox, by utilising the cloud, revolutionised storage, rather than just improving USB sticks. Founder Drew Houston was, like Butterfield, a self-taught child coder.
This is why it is so important to get education right. We desperately need more young people to choose programming as a career, yet coding in schools is currently taught via a pre-pack model, with little to no emphasis on showing its creative side. But if you equip someone with fundamental tools, they can then go away and create. Recognising that the majority of developers guided themselves into the field through curiosity, and often started out by building small solutions to things that bothered them, means putting creativity front and centre when it comes to the curriculum. You can engineer an individual’s “aha!” moment early on, and that is what we must do.
This is not just an issue for the world’s tech industry. In the UK, firms need around 138,000 new entrants a year to fill digital specialist roles, and more than half of our tech companies have vacancies they are struggling to fill. In the US, employment of software developers is expected to grow by 24 percent from 2016 to 2026 – far faster than other jobs. Software engineering is vital to all aspects of the global economy now and, as more businesses build an engineering culture, the need for talent grows exponentially. Over the next 10 to 15 years, there will be a dilution of what it means to be a software versus a non-software business. Every business will need to build software in-house. The risk is that doing so will be approached from a functional, task-driven perspective – that things will stay as they largely are.
Many industries have already learnt the hard way. Had hotels built their own software teams who were given the opportunity to focus on problems, rather than outsourcing and buying off the shelf, there is a chance Airbnb would not exist. There is a chance a reasonably modest software team working for a small hotel group would have come up with it themselves. Instead, the industry was caught off-guard and disrupted. Those of us in the tech sector should be leading the way here: we know our developers are some of the most creative people we have. Let’s unleash them and see what they can do.