From developers to inspired creators

With Build 2021 upon us, I’ve been reflecting on the devastation and ingenuity brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a year of unprecedented challenge, we’ve seen extraordinary resilience, imagination and innovation. Developers all over the world have been working together to use technology as a force for good as they built new platforms to accelerate remote learning, scaled telehealth, and facilitated business resilience in the face of daunting constraints.  They have challenged us to think differently about who “developers” are and who they will need to be. They are building so much more than apps – they are creating digital experiences in response to unanticipated disruption, allowing us all to continue to power forward and reimagine our future.

Those who create with technology have earned a much more expansive term than “developer.” software developer, DevOps engineer, data scientist, user researcher, interaction designer, business analyst – are just some of the job titles of people who create with technology. They are motivated to fix things, to share insights, to reduce pain points, to make things better. Today’s developers, in all their different roles, are inspired creators.

This more expansive view of who is empowered to create must be accompanied by a discussion of what skills are needed. Empowering more people to create with technology through more accessible tools, support for learning new technologies, and scaling through collaboration are so important now that developers are more in demand than ever. So, let’s talk about how today’s digital creators can empower themselves, their organizations and their communities to explore the art of the possible and take their ideas from code to the cloud so they can impact the 7 billion-plus people around the world.

Our software reflects our culture and our humanity

Modern coding is inherently social. Developers typically spend 30% of their time alone and another 70% on collaboration and interaction with others including non-developers.  Modern digital experiences are built collaboratively by teams of developers and other adjacent disciplines. The status quo of how teams collaborate has been upended with the geographic isolation brought on by the shift to hybrid work environments. What we’ve seen during the rapid digital transformation brought on by COVID-19 is a massive case study on pivoting, adapting and flexibly changing course.

The hybrid workplace has blurred the boundaries of work and life. Each of us are now virtually invited into our coworkers’ homes, many are working unconventional hours to accommodate domestic duties and support school-age children, and people are starting jobs without ever having met their colleagues in real life. In fact, according to LinkedIn, over the past 12 months the percentage of developer job postings that were remote increased nearly 8x year over year.

And yet we keep on truckin! But I see a reckoning coming. What’s dramatically different about the new virtual workplace is that there is less of an opportunity to learn about one another as humans to build social capital which becomes so necessary at points of tension and disagreement. This is further compounded by the added stress of a global pandemic and racial violence. As a result, tempers get short, flare-ups are more difficult to resolve, and people lose the resolve to continue to collaborate.

Creators need to connect with their colleagues to learn about one another and make space for the role that the ability to focus, emotions, self-efficacy and belongingness play in the creation process. Having these conversions is crucial to improving personal impact, team output, creativity and pivoting when encountering setbacks. It all starts with empathetic listening. A team that masters the skills of empathetic listening is a team that can resolve conflict, is better able to respond to customer feedback, and accepts that the best ideas might come from the most unexpected places. Teams with an inclusive culture that value listening create a better environment in which people with different perspectives, cultures and styles can thrive.

The skills and perspectives we bring to creating digital products are also reflected in the experiences that we ultimately deliver. The only way that we can build technology for everyone is by ensuring it is built by everyone. To build for the diversity of humanity, we need to have an industry filled with people of all backgrounds.

How do we achieve this? Code is both a verb and a noun. We code in how the software works and what it looks like. Just as we code in features, we must code in our values and culture too. We work hard on our culture to foster a community of belongingness, inclusion, encouragement and support. We put a lot of effort into our computer science education efforts to teach these skills to upcoming developers. Those who are able create with technology will write our future and shape our history. Everyone, everywhere, should have access to be able to master the skills needed to create and a voice in what we create. And we’re making progress: I’ve been so inspired to see that Nigeria, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Egypt topped the list of new contributors to GitHub in 2020, according to the Octoverse 2020 report.

As an Imagine Cup World Finals judge earlier this month, I had the opportunity to see brilliant students from all over the world building incredible solutions for our annual developer student skilling competition. A team from Poland built Intelligent Hives which better supports beekeepers keep healthy hives, which in turn supports better crop yield. A team from India created “Vision” to help visually impaired people become more autonomous. Students from New Zealand came up with an intelligent ear tag for cows called ProTag for better monitoring of livestock welfare. Students from Nepal developed Pico Sat which provides better real-time insight about the pollution of local surroundings. Teams from the United States aspired to improve access to technical learning with remote-first hardware labs and create better diagnoses for Parkinson’s.

Creating is learning and unlearning. Inventing and reinventing.

I admire the tenacity of developers. Hundreds of times a day, developers confront bugs, compiler errors, poorly documented interfaces and misconfigured environments all while trying to wrangle technology that’s often brand new to them. Developers embody a growth mindset because failure is an expected part of the process. Struggle, practice, challenge, feedback and discomfort are normal. Developers are experts in learning how to react to and recover from unexpected disruptions or setbacks. Understanding and naming what is happening, disentangling what we do and do not have control over, and regrouping with new strategies are all core parts of the perseverance of the development process so we can pivot not panic when faced with challenges.

Another skill is “unlearning.” For developers, that might be most recognizable when you’ve come to change your perspective about last year’s hot web user interface framework. You’ve come to realize that it wasn’t working for you the way that you needed – that there is a better way to get the job done. In the shift to hybrid work we need to make space for reflection and newfound awareness about what serves us, what doesn’t, and what habits or behaviors might need to be unlearned to move forward in a way where we create, manage and maintain social connections so we can create the best experiences possible for our customers.

At Microsoft, it’s our responsibility to take a fresh look at the state of how developers engage with the world around them – how you learn, consume, create, play, get stuff done and flow from thinking to making. It’s up to us to create technology that meets you where you are and gets you to where you want to go.

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Creating by focusing on the code that matters

Earlier I spoke about writing the code that matters. A few years ago, as I was making a transition to a new role, a mentor said to me, “Be careful – everyone will want some of your time. Be sure you’re pursuing your agenda.” It’s so easy to let our calendars run away from us – to get bogged down in the trivial, mundane and tedious.

The same is true in coding. Anyone who has spent time coding recognizes how crucial it is to achieve focus and stay in the zone. Ultimately, focus time is the most precious commodity for a developer as there is always a backlog and the collective backlog for the industry continues to grow. That’s why it’s more important than ever that we’re focusing on code that matters – in other words, the code that only you can write, the code that’s going to make a material difference in the impact for the lives of our end users.

Every keystroke counts and that’s why it just makes sense that more projects start with Open Source, that professional developers are empowering others to rapidly create with low-code tools, and personal and team productivity are paramount.  Professional developers and domain experts will continue to work more closely together to build all kinds of solutions.

Building our future by sharing stories of inspired creators  

When people ask me about my job, I often say that it’s half anthropology and half craftsmanship. Anthropology because we study how and why people use the tools they use. Craftsmanship because we continuously hone the tools we build to better serve our users. When reflecting on the opportunity to tell our story at a conference like Build, I’m reminded of a saying by an influential cultural anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, who suggested that the definition of a culture is the “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” This acknowledges the importance of stories – the stories of our generation, of the industry in this pivotal moment, and the culture we aspire to achieve.

Stories matter when we’re building technology – It’s your stories that bring the human factor into the work we do. Your stories help our engineering teams understand why we build the things we build and they connect us to the people we serve. Stories allow us to build empathy for the experiences of others – our customers and our colleagues. Keeping these stories at the heart of development ensures we continue to write code that matters.

It’s your stories that turn us into inspired creators.

At Build you will hear stories about navigating change and the role that technology can play. I invite you to share your experience as you’ve seen the role of developers evolve. I look forward to continuing to learn from you.

Tags: Build 2021, developers


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