Everything we’ve assumed about developers is wrong. Why tomorrow’s great tech leaders are today’s poets, linguists and saxophonists

Rey Perez Profile picture for user Rey Perez November 22, 2021
Bootcamps aren't the answer - Rey Perez of New Relic explains why the next generation of engineers will need to be true creative thinkers to meet the needs of tech companies.

Jazz musician playing the saxophone in the studio with joyful improvising. Close-up retro portrait © Master1305 - Shutterstock
(© Master1305 - Shutterstock)

In conversations among tech leaders, one of the most common topics is a growing talent shortage – across industries and geographies, companies are struggling to find enough employees to support their digital transformation or growth strategies. According to Gartner's recent 2021-2023 Emerging Technology Roadmap for Large Enterprises, IT executives view a shortage of talent as the most significant barrier to the adoption of nearly two thirds (64%) of emerging technologies. This competitive market for talent makes it extremely difficult for tech innovators to find new talent, and expensive to retain highly skilled employees.

The current hiring situation in tech is the result of a disconnect between what companies need and what the market is producing. Tech companies are most struggling to find employees with the vision and experience to lead new initiatives and develop creative applications; the market has responded with coding bootcamps, which have produced a glut of junior software developers. While these boot camps often produce solid developers, they're not the solution that meets the moment – and they'll prove even less useful in years to come.

As businesses adopt more and more automated tools and AI-backed algorithms to solve fundamental tasks, there will be much less need for the skills provided by entry- and middle-level developers. Instead, the next generation of engineers will need to use imaginative, truly creative thinking to devise new applications for growing tech capabilities. As an industry, we need to reevaluate what it means to be a developer, what kind of skills we're looking for, and where we're looking for them.

From left to right

As a profession, engineering is often viewed as better suited for 'left-brain' thinkers – those who pride themselves on organization, rational thinking, and academic disciplines like math and science. However, the rise of automated tools and microservices has solved many of the same problems that could be tackled by left-brain engineers. Off-the-shelf SaaS products address many of the most tedious aspects of the engineer's daily work, leaving more room for higher-level thinking that can drive outsized value for the company.

If AI and automation address the analytical needs of tech teams, then we need to find new leaders who can help direct that analysis with fresh thinking and ingenuity. For the next generation of software products – the yet-unfounded companies that will drive billions in value over the next decade – we'll need to cultivate a generation of right-brain, creative thinkers whose skills lie in finding new patterns and interpretations for existing situations.

Seeking new skills and experiences

Imagine you're in charge of hiring for a tech company. If you can come up with a useful service that provides an incremental improvement to your customers, you can expect to make steady profits until your company is eclipsed by a disruptive, innovative product. If you can be the disruptive, innovative product, you stand to make much more than just steady profits. A truly game-changing business stands to make tens of billions or more while reshaping the way we live and work.

But if the biggest challenge your company is going to face is going to be coming up with creative new use cases and technology strategies, what type of employee should you be looking for? Would you rather have someone who spent four years studying mechanical engineering, or someone who spent four years learning how to express themselves through different styles of classical music? Someone who did a six-month crash course in Python, or someone who speaks three languages and can detect patterns in seemingly disparate situations? Someone who can give and follow orders, or someone who can only address problems from outside the box?

The next great tech employee might not have just finished a degree in computer engineering: some outstanding candidates recently finished military service, while others could have spent time volunteering with organizations like Teach for America. Veterans and other service-minded individuals may not come in knowing the ins and outs of the modern software stack, but they'll bring a fresh perspective and real-world experience that will be invaluable for a goal-oriented engineering team. Our tech teams of the future will require some of both left-brain and right-brain thinking; however, we must begin to build the teams of the future by looking for new skills and experiences.

Rethinking recruiting

If what you're looking for has changed, then where you're looking has to change as well. If a doctor tells you that you must lower your cholesterol by eating a vegetarian diet, you're not going to find what you need by continuing to buy from the local butcher. This is a golden opportunity for the tech community to move beyond pledges and promises and actually engage with new sources for talent. Redefining what it means to be a developer or tech employee should remove the traditional barriers to entry, allowing companies to look in areas that have been traditionally underrepresented.

The most talented and creative right-brain thinkers aren't just going to be in Seattle or Silicon Valley, and they're going to look a lot more diverse than today's average tech company. Prioritizing creativity is an opportunity to improve some of the inequities that have plagued our industry, and we shouldn't be afraid to embrace the changes that this approach might bring. Business rewards the disruptive and the fearless – let's invite in the creatives to see what they can disrupt.

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