Open Source

Face it: Developers are becoming babies

The developer population has less experience than ever, but it hasn't harmed innovation.

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Image: iStockphoto/Melpomenem

Way back in the dawn of the open source era, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) uncovered an interesting fact: Open-source developers weren't anarchists and didn't sport purple mohawks (usually). Typically, developers in the open source community were comfortably middle-aged (30 years old, on average), generally bringing 11 years of experience to their craft.

Fast forward to 2013, and it was still the case, as Forrester pointed out, that trends like cloud computing were being driven by the oldies. In that survey, Forrester found that 71% of cloud developers had at least six years of development experience, and 11% had been writing code for over 20 years.

And yet, the average age of the developer population keeps skewing younger, according to VisionMobile's latest Developer Economics survey of over 21,000 developers. How young? Sixty percent of the mobile developer population has five years or less of experience, and even 60% of the desktop crowd has less than six years of experience.

Is this good or bad?

Serious youthquake going on?

It's perhaps not surprising that the developer population keeps getting younger, at least as measured by experience. For example, while the early open source community largely focused on rewriting legacy, proprietary software as open source (Linux replacing Unix, OpenOffice replacing Microsoft Office, etc.), today's open source community is building the future.

SEE: Developers are pragmatic, not religious, about software (TechRepublic)

Projects like Kafka, Docker, and MongoDB aren't really meant to be rip-and-replace alternatives to incumbent technologies. They're a new breed of software to solve a new breed of problems.

Hence, across the spectrum of industry movements, developers have less experience:

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What's perhaps more interesting than the average years of experience, however, is how that translates into development practices.

Kids these days!

Take, for example, licensing. As I've written, the GitHub generation has gone beyond open-source licensing, generally eschewing licenses altogether for their projects. Though it has gotten better due to concerted efforts from GitHub to convince developers to care about licensing, in 2013 just 14.9% of GitHub repositories had a file in their top-level directories that specified a license.

SEE: Why 10 million developers are lining up for the Internet of Things (TechRepublic)

451 Research analyst Donnie Berkholz cautions not to read too much into this, because "as projects grow, they tend to sort out any licensing issues, likely because they get corporate users, professional developers, etc." Not surprisingly, as projects grow the developers involved with them also tend to get older/more experienced, so licensing becomes important.

Documentation, however, still stinks.

Developers, focused on their code, can't be bothered to write good documentation which, in turn, hampers adoption. Brian Rinaldi ventured to call the situation a "mess," one that keeps getting worse as more developers jump into code without recognizing that good documentation is an essential feature of the best open source projects (and always has been).

Of course, another way to look at this is to change what we mean by "documentation." As VisionMobile points out, resources like Stack Overflow and Reddit "are already highly valued by developers, and we expect to see their importance increasing, as more developers join the workforce."

In other words, these "kids" that are building the future are doing it on their own terms. This can seem disorienting to more established developers, but it doesn't seem to be slowing the pace of innovation in data, mobile, or other tectonic industry trends, all of which are powered by less and less experienced developers.

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    About Matt Asay

    Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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