UK businesses see developers as being key to their digital transformation efforts but are still leaving them out of conversations around how new products should be built.

A survey of 400 IT decision makers by cloud communications company Twilio found that developers are often sidelined in strategic decision making around how to tackle customer problems.

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The research found that leaders often only engage with development teams late in the project lifecycle, severely limiting their ability to provide input to new products and ensure they are effective.

More than half (53%) IT decision makers admitted that they didn’t involve developers at the start of a project, despite this being crucial in enabling development teams to understand the problems needing to be solved. Even so, 95% of respondents said developers were important to digital transformation, and 91% acknowledged that dev teams were important in helping them respond to COVID-19 challenges.

Marcos Placona, head of developer relations EMEA at Twilio, suggested that the issue was down to a misconception that developers are there simply to write code. “The developer will typically be briefed in on what features are needed and sent on their way to write the code,” Placona told TechRepublic.

“In many cases, there is a false perception that it’s wise to keep customers and developers apart. Typically, business functions act as the gatekeeper to the customer and ultimately prevent them from understanding the project’s reasons. But actually, developers are a creative workforce who, when given the opportunity, can use their expertise to find technological solutions, not simply build them.”

IT teams have of course been crucial in tackling the new challenges that have arisen from COVID-19, which has forced many businesses to accelerate their digitization plans in order to survive.

Twilio’s research, which surveyed CTOs, CIOs and other senior IT decision makers, found that nearly all (96%) believed the role of technology was important in responding to the challenges of the pandemic, with 68% saying it was ‘very important’.

Of the 91% that said developers were crucial to this response, more than half (53%) regarded their role as ‘very important’. This increased to 70% in the IT, technology & telecoms sector.

Twilio suggested that the perceived value of developers was starting to shift as a result of the pandemic: prior to COVID-19, less than a third (31%) said believed developers were ‘vital’ to the performance of the organization. This has increased to 41% since the pandemic began.

Even so, less than half (47%) of organizations engage developers at the start of a project, with the majority only bringing them in later down the line – for example, briefing them to build the system, rather than asking them how it should be shaped in order to meet business needs.

The most important thing is to give developers problems to solve, not instructions to build specific solutions, said Placona.

“The magic of bringing developers into the conversation early is that when armed with the customer context and a good understanding of the problem, they can suggest far greater solutions for the organization,” he added.

“The best leaders take their most challenging customer problems to developers and watch what they can create.”

However, this only works if developers are empowered to use their creativity to solve these problems. “The first step for business leaders is recognizing that developers aren’t simply technical staff. If you can unlock the creative power of developers, you can empower them to find new ways to solve the organization’s most pressing problems and enable you to better engage with your customers,” said Placona.

Twilio also found that developer involvement in strategy remained largely unchanged, despite their importance in the pandemic response. Prior to the pandemic, 36% of respondents said developer teams were ‘heavily involved’ in strategic decision making in their organizations; this is compared to 37% since the pandemic began.

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In contrast, CTOs and senior IT decision makers in some sectors saw their own involvement in strategy increase from 56% being ‘heavily involved’ to 68% in professional services and from 56% to 64% in retail.

Twilio’s survey suggested that financial services organizations had embraced developers most. Respondents from the sector “overwhelmingly recognized” the value of technology as ‘very important’ in responding to pandemic challenges (84%), higher than the overall average of 68%.

They were also more likely to see developers as vital to the performance of the organization. This perception increased from 42% pre-pandemic, to more than half (51%) since it began. Developer involvement in strategic decision making also jumped considerably, from 26% being ‘heavily involved’ to 40%.

Companies are unlikely to revert back to the old way of doing things after the pandemic, said Placona.

“We are likely to see an increasingly hybrid model between online and offline offerings, and developers have a fundamental role in building the future of how companies interact with their customers. The organizations that master this will not only recover, but succeed in the digital economy.”