The rise of developer-led culture and how it can benefit your business

Developer-led culture entails providing your programming staff a more active role in decision-making and guiding the business forward. Learn how this mindset can help your company achieve its goals.

developer working

Image: iStock/Deagreez

I've always been of the mindset that leaders and decision-makers in business should have a clear and complex understanding of the jobs performed by their staff. It doesn't make sense for a manager not to understand the technologies for which they are responsible. 

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You can consult stakeholders to bring in the technical know-how required to make appropriate decisions, but having a hands-on background in what your staff does is a key ingredient for business and leadership success.

My organization has a sizable development staff with many prominent managers responsible for various systems, platforms and functions. Every one of those managers has risen from the ranks of staff developer to development leader. This has helped them build a developer-led culture which, combined with the Agile methodology for project management, has resulted in building a foundation of proven success.

I spoke about the topic of a developer-led culture with Robson Grieve, CMO of software development platform provider OutSystems.

Scott Matteson: What is the "developer-led culture," and what does it entail?

Robson Grieve: In a developer-led culture, companies recognize developers as innovators instrumental to solving some of the world's most complex problems. While in the past, only a small number of companies were able to succeed with a developer-led culture, we'll see the dramatic rise of this mindset permeate throughout the enterprise as business leaders and developers take advantage of new tools that make it easier for developers to drive innovation and that enable more technical collaboration between business and IT. Not only will far more developers have a seat at the table, they'll be the key drivers of the next wave of business innovation.

Scott Matteson: Why the recent shift toward this culture?

Robson Grieve: The business environment today is increasingly competitive and transforming rapidly, so development teams are tackling new and more urgent challenges to help their companies differentiate. Customers need applications that will adapt as quickly as the needs of the business change. While the "entrepreneur as innovator" narrative has dominated the last decade, business leaders in Silicon Valley and outside of it are taking note of the important contributions of developers and their roles in helping solve mission-critical problems for the business. 

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Scott Matteson: What business challenges does it address?

Robson Grieve: A developer-led culture is best when it's rooted in collaboration between business leaders and IT. Today, despite massive amounts of money and effort, application development struggles to be effective and still runs up against the same roadblocks it did 20 years ago. Painfully few companies (e.g. Google, MSFT, Apple, Facebook, etc.) have the ability to take advantage of the full stack of traditional development by locking in the best engineering talent in the world and building massive teams. Everyone else has been left out—understaffed and stuck with complex, unapproachable technology that keeps them from using applications to their advantage. But, to be able to compete, companies need differentiated software, and to be able to build it themselves so that it adapts to always-evolving needs. By giving developers a true seat at the table, even enterprises with lean teams can build applications faster, better, and more in line with the business' requirements from the onset. 

Scott Matteson: What are some subjective examples of the outcomes?

Robson Grieve: Empowered developers working alongside business leaders allow companies to build mission-critical apps in-house, without the need for large development teams. This solves for the customization problem CIOs face when buying SaaS, while reducing friction in the development process. 

Another effect of a developer-led culture is that we'll see some antiquated thinking about who and what makes a developer fall to the wayside. Industry expectations for professional developers will broaden to include pros who have taken different routes to the profession—not just those who've earned computer science degrees at competitive academic institutions. As a result, the next generation of programmers will be increasingly diverse in their perspective and their skillset, and this diversity will be a huge benefit to their organizations.

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Finally, we'll see more examples of clever applications of technology as developers bring their knowledge of the latest innovations to the table when discussing possible solutions to business challenges. Applying technology to integrate disparate, previously unconnected business processes, using machine learning to improve efficiency of workflows or enhancing employee productivity through augmented reality. When developers can combine their understanding of what's possible with the business leader's understanding of what's needed, truly innovative solutions can be realized. 

Scott Matteson: What should developers be doing to help facilitate this?

Robson Grieve: Traditionally, developers have been heavily focused on how software is built, with near-religious dedication to their language and stack of choice. As application platforms evolve, and new approaches to more quickly building software become more widely adopted, this dogmatic adherence to traditional tools will diminish. Developers will allow themselves to be more agile and results focused as the number of problems that can only be solved with software increases and more development projects require business and IT to work together. Developers are already shifting their mindset to focus on building mission-critical apps—regardless of how they're made—and appreciating automation that leads to less friction, errors and technical debt. Along with this mindset shift, developers can advocate for modern development platforms that facilitate the collaboration between business and IT. 

Scott Matteson: What should IT departments and business leaders be doing to help support this?

Robson Grieve: To support this initiative, IT departments and business leaders need to adopt practices, policies, and tools that enable speed, flexibility, and, especially, collaboration. Ultimately, building a developer-led culture starts at the top, with leaders bringing development into early conversations rather than after ideas are baked and need to be executed.

Business leaders should also encourage more holistic thinking when it comes to applying technology to address the widest array of business challenges. Combining a systemic mindset with a technology platform approach—as opposed to thinking about discrete, narrowly focused problems leading to siloed, narrowly focused solutions—will lead to better long-term outcomes.

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Scott Matteson: Is remote work playing a factor in this?

Robson Grieve: Remote work and the challenges of the pandemic have spurred this cultural change to happen even faster, as business leadership looks to developers to help them adapt and automate processes to this new work environment. It's also been spurred by platforms and tools that enable better collaboration for teams working remotely, which as a byproduct, encourage better communication across departments and teams. 

Scott Matteson: How will this trend evolve down the road?

Robson Grieve: In the future, we'll see developers emerge more and more as the heroes within every enterprise, not just at big tech companies in Silicon Valley. Furthermore, as IT unbridles itself from the daily struggle of keeping up with backlogs, is able to focus more on innovation and strategy, and proves its strategic value to their organizations, we'll see more developers thinking strategically about business opportunity and more business leaders thinking strategically about the opportunity for the technological innovation driven by empowered developers. 

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