When 'freelance' becomes the gig economy, new developer needs emerge alongside the opportunities

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks June 24, 2022
The developers’ favourite information and advice repository, Stack Overflow, knows full well the potential of the developer gig economy, and the company is setting itself to ensure that it helps it grow.

gig economy

Not so long ago a UK newspaper ran a story about middle-aged, largely professional people asking themselves the question, ‘What the (expletive deleted) am I doing working for this company, or indeed working at all?’. A common complaint seemed to be that their employers rarely took them seriously, cared too little about them or their welfare, took them for granted and….well, many of you will be able to add your own observations of their actions and attitudes.

And for a surprising number, some serious consideration of their situation – family, financial, emotional and the rest – gave them a chance to realise that things had to change. For some it was to retire early, for some it was change job to one that gave them fulfilment rather than just money, and for some it was to go and join the gypsies on the open road (in a decent camper van, naturally).

The latter sounds idyllic, and for a while it can be. But people often get bored with an idyll, and perhaps even feel they still have something to contribute, but don’t want a job (or at least not one like they left). These people, plus a great deal more, are often likely candidates to fill roles in the growing gig economy, something that can (and certainly will) develop in most branches of industry, business or organization but is already underway in the world of applications development.

Who says so? Well, Prashanth Chandrasekar, for one. He is CEO of the code-cutters’ go-to information resource, Stack Overflow. The company gets over 100 million monthly visits from the software developer community and, since its birth in 2008, it has built up a repository of over 50 million questions and answers to help code cutters with their work.

It is the tools and services the company has developed which are the key here, however, for they can be applied well beyond the specific needs of developers and applications vendors. They can be used across the industrial and business board, and can be applied as the foundation on which emerging gig economies can be created, run, and grown. 

Don’t want to work in big metro? Then don’t 

Chandrasekar is aware of this because the evidence can be seen in the results of the company’s annual user survey, and has already instituted plans and developments to meet that need.

The evidence is straightforward and clear. The Stack Overflow annual survey attracts around 100,000 responses from its user base and their answers, coupled with documented evidence of the locations they respond from, show a significant trend is already underway.  He says: 

Even in early 2020, as soon as the pandemic broke out, we noticed that plenty people, developers, were moving to other cities.  And now what we've seen for two years is that the places where developers are in the United States are outside of all the big metros. We see these pretty big decreases in developer populations in San Francisco, in New York, etc.

The surveys showed that, in pre-pandemic 2019, about 9.5% of the survey sample identified as freelance software developers. This year it has hit 17%. Some of this Chandrasekar attributes to the obvious factors, such as the pandemic obliging people to work from home. Coupled with the growth in the use of online comms tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, this has demonstrated that remote home working is not only possible, it is likely to be preferable and, for many, more productive. 

The other element playing a part, however, is that the company’s evidence shows that most developers are assiduous learners, not only working with their current job, but picking up new skills on the side. And it is not just tricks and tips, the majority are learning at least one new programming language a year, he explains: 

Technology is moving so rapidly that they have to keep up and get on to the latest technology stack because it's the most efficient way to do things, or it could be the best way to do things. The company, or the project they're working on, has decided to programme in a particular language because that's the tech stack they're going to use. It's important because things are moving rapidly and new projects are coming up every day. Employers need to provide environments where people can rescale and learn a lot of new stuff. And that's where we come in as Stack Overflow implicitly allows people to learn.

He points to Google as a good example, suggesting it gives all its developers an allocated learning time, but claims most businesses don’t offer this. There can be formalized training courses on specific subjects, but nothing that allows developers to make the most of themselves and new technologies:

Those people are going to leave, because they're not going to be trained up to keep up with the pace of innovation. And the number of freelances is increasing.

The gig economy

It is those freelances who are likely to make up the core of a new gig economy, a place where the burden of employing them is actually taken away from business managers. As Chandrasekar observes, there is a world shortage of talent suitable for employment across the board, with applications development being no exception. This means there is pressure on businesses to hang on to the talent they have, and one sometimes gets the impression they are given some extremely banal and unnecessary developments to work on just to keep them occupied an on-board.

Given that, might it be better for most companies to employ them on a per-project basis than on long term employment contracts? That way individual developers can combine and exploit their noted propensity for self-learning with an interest or skill in an application area, such as financial services, industrial process management, automobile automation and control and all the rest of the almost limitless application areas that now exist.

It also means that business managers can gain access to better, more appropriate skills that are more widely available rather than investing heavily in trying to maintain ownership, control and up-skilling of the talent and skills they have managed to accumulate, often ending up alienating them and creating their desire to move on. The gig economy also provides the potential for the ‘gigsters’ to form loose (or, quite possibly, closer) connections and alliances with individuals that they have worked with before and could work well with in the future, perhaps forming teams that build a reputation for skill and experience in a specific technology or applications area.

Building a proper gig economy

The one current weak spot in all this is some level of underlying organization. There is obviously scope for agencies and consultancies to spring up here, but what they also need is some common underpinning of solid, established information about the technologies, and the specific skill sets and applications specialities that both individual developers and loosely-associated developer teams can offer. This is a need that has not passed Chandrasekar by - Stack Overflow has services available that could be readily exploited to deliver just such information.   

The technology aspect is, of course, already more than adequately covered, and the model underpinning it can be put to work with a wider range of technologies than just code cutting, so Q&A management of applications-related technologies can be added as the need grows. 

But there are two other main services the company offers which do have a role to play here. One is called Teams for Business, a subscription SaaS aimed at enterprises employing large numbers of developers. This is a service where those developers can build up their own repository of technology and operational tips and tricks that are specific to their needs and the needs of their employers. It also becomes a good short cut for when new developers are on-boarded, as the repository for all the important `how-we-do-it’ information.

It can also become the key repository for both individual developers and ad-hoc (or more permanent) teams of which they have been members. Their commonly-asked questions, tips and tricks learned along the way can be readily stored and kept too hand for either the individual or a team, especially those that apply to working with technology ‘X’ in application area ‘Y’.

The other service is Business Branding, part of its wider advertising business. The latter is something of an obvious and lucrative `side hustle’ for the company, but the Business Branding element is interesting and has real potential for the development of the gig economy, reckons Chandrasekar: 

The branding business was a part of our advertising business has soared in popularity. So all these companies want to advertise on StackOverflow for technology talent, because this is where all developers are weak.

But it does provide scope to add the service in reverse - qigster developers, and more likely, teams that enjoy and have been successful in working together in a particular application area can advertise and promote themselves and their specialist skills.

Chandrasekar argues the company already sees the opportunity consisting of some 25 million software developers, some obvious `knowledge workers’, such as data scientists and product management workers, and a much larger group, maybe a billion-strong, who exploit knowledge of many kinds. These include a wide set of specialist technologists beyond software development, such as finance, legal, business management and the rest:

What we do is for companies of any kind that needs knowledge sharing and collaboration. We sell our product into less tech-oriented companies. Every company has some element of technology and knowledge workers, doesn't matter what company you're talking about. So absolutely, in the long run we expect to expand into this one billion knowledge worker universe. But right now our focus is talking to developers.

My take

There has been ‘freelance’ forever, and it will go on forever. But the combination of pandemic and comms technology have moved it (and the people wo do it) onto a different, more mainstream plain. That combination has given a real kickstart to the gig economy. Stack Overflow looks well-placed. 

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