“Bodies for Dollars” Doesn’t Solve Business Problems

Bodies for Dollars

“Bodies for Dollars” Doesn’t Solve Business Problems

The business model for hiring and retaining software developers is all too often reduced to a pure volume equation that trumps quantity over quality in a quest for the lowest bidder.  But as software becomes an increasingly integral part of modern society, it also becomes a means of creating competitive advantage for businesses that recognize technology as more than just a cost center.  Capitalizing on this opportunity requires abandoning the ‘developer as commodity’ perception ingrained in many executive suites.

How Did We Get Here?

No one will dispute that at its core, creative software development requires a highly specialized skill set. The most successful developers possess a relatively rare combination of technical acumen, focused discipline, communication skills to translate abstract concepts, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to turn a vision into working reality.

In the early days of the Internet (think Al Gore and ‘Information Superhighway’), programmers needed to possess these traits in abundance to navigate through the uncharted territory of a newly world. At the time, forward-thinking companies that invested in technology and software development sought out in-demand technologists who essentially did it all – programming, configuring, networking, installing and testing – and did it well.  It was a boom time, and developers were duly rewarded for their unique and important contributions to this newly connected world.

But as the 90’s drew to a close and the bubble burst, the craft of software development was forced to adapt and mature.  Standardized methodologies and patterns emerged, and software toolsets for enabling development grew more robust with each new release, making it easier and certainly much faster to design and develop the more easily managed solutions that were increasingly being demanded by the market.  Sensing opportunity, large global consultancies jumped on-board, and the offshore development model gathered steam, with “body shop” vendors offering a seemingly endless supply of developers an ocean away to churn out code not only cheaply, but literally around the clock.  The notion that software services could largely be commoditized began to take hold in the mindset of corporate America.

So What Happened?

As many predicted, the software industry is now experiencing the fallout from this emphasis on buying bodies instead of value. The number of large software development projects that fail every year is at an all-time high, due in large part to functionality issues, low quality, and poorly managed expectations and risks.  According to a recent McKinsey study of 5,400 companies, 66% of large (>$15 million) software projects went over budget, 33% went over schedule, and 17% delivered less overall value than predicted.  Another study found that 17% of large IT projects went so off course that they threatened the very existence of the company.

While it’s easy to point the finger at the companies that continue to promote and profit from these practices, the paying customer is also responsible for perpetuating this emphasis on volume.  Limited technical knowledge, shifting priorities and intense budgetary pressure have in equal doses contributed to the ongoing marginalization of the developer role.

So What Now?

We are now entering another exciting technology renaissance, and as in those early days of the Internet 20 years ago, software is the driver of this groundswell of innovation and advancement.  On one end is “the cloud,” or rather, “the clouds,” with industry titans Microsoft, Google, Amazon and others making an everything-as-a-service world a reality.  And on the other is the collection of devices that power business and our lives – what was once on the desktop has long since hopped to the laptop, then into our hands, and now our wrists, with other body parts sure to follow.

The good news is that this myriad of emerging technologies is opening up fresh avenues for competitive advantage, creating entirely new, disruptive businesses and even industries that were inconceivable just a few years ago.  But as in those early days, navigating these complex waters is not for the timid – rather, it requires the ability to fuse business opportunity with technology capability not just as a vision, but as a functional outcome that delivers results to society as a whole.  In short – not a commodity.

Businesses seem to be slowly getting the message.  According to a recent study from, although the biggest need among employers of developers continues to be for core programming skills, this is quickly changing as this next generation of technologies realize their promise.  Through the first half of 2014, demand for senior level developers with knowledge of emerging technologies actually outpaced the need for core developers, and this shift is expected to continue.

And so the tide is turning, and the organizations that embrace this paradigm shift earliest will be those that reap the most benefit – both the companies that recognize and promote talent, and the consultancies and contractors that renew their focus on delivering real business value as opposed to just lines of code.