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Coding Experience Not Necessarily Required

The latest releases of GUI development tools let users create conforming code by dragging and dropping icons. With coding this easy, who needs programmers?

Well, the world does. Paid programming won't go away, experts say, but it has begun to change. Tech giants like Microsoft and Sun Microsystems are tipping their hats to just about anyone interested in crunching code.

Microsoft recently introduced Express Editions of its visual development tools. Microsoft said the line, which includes lightweight versions of Visual Studio 2005 and SQL Server, would let hobbyists "quickly build exciting, dynamic Web sites and Windows applications," albeit on the client side.

Sun released Sun Java Studio Creator, a tool that generates 100 percent compatible Java code. It offers style sheets and drag-and-drop development for $99 a year. Introducing the product, Sun President and COO Jonathan Schwartz said, "We want to move from a world where you have to be a college graduate to develop Java."

The company's Java Studio Creator is a change for Sun, which has tended to focus on bit architectures and big systems, said Jim Inscore, Java Studio Creator product manager. "This tool does enable people to learn just enough Java to do small tasks," he said. The product is aimed at a large pool of corporate developers who may not know their IDE from their IIOP , but can use this visual tool.

Inscore said the purpose of Java Studio Creator is not to help developers move up the food chain, but to give them a Java-based alternative to the other brands -- like Visual Studio. Nevertheless, future releases of the product will enable the drag-and-drop creation of Web services and, before the end of the year, the ability to work within the NetBeans-integrated development environment .

The Microsoft and Sun apps -- as well as those from Borland and others -- should be a wake-up call to developers that it's time to change their acts.

Who Is a Programmer, Anyway?

Take the example of Keith Brophy, founder of software development company and Microsoft partner Sagestone Consulting. In the early days of programming, assembly language skills were golden, he said. By the early 1990s, object-oriented programming was in demand. It demanded a different mindset.

"Assembly was more about plopping down and gluing components together," Brophy said. "Assembly required the skill to think in terms of objects -- leverage them back and forth. When Visual Basic came on the scene, it was the first foreshadowing of the integrated developer mindset."

If building software is like building a house, Brophy continued, "We've evolved from the developer that built an application by nailing the boards together to the developer bringing in the pre-fabricated wall, plopping down the sink counter, then making sure the plumbing is tight and nothing leaks."

At first glance, the tools might look easy, Brophy said, but it takes a deeper skill set to know which pieces are best dragged and dropped. "You have to be able to understand building blocks, frameworks, the existing pieces you can leverage," he said.

Visual tools will let developers put their heads up and look around. "The market is changing from siloed jobs, where I'm a code monkey, someone give me a spec," said Tim Goodhew, a Microsoft product manager who handles developer messaging. "Developers are expected to be a little more expansive, and they need to think about development along the entire lifecycle. They have to think about the business-analysis needs, about the architecture, testing and project management."

The role of internal developers at Ping Golf Clubs is definitely in that mode, said David Chacon, head of information systems. At Ping, developers work closely with business and communications folk.

"Traditionally, a lot of programmers are in code mode, and they don't develop the communication skills to understand the import of what they're coding," he said. "And now, that's all you're concentrating on."

Programmers who succeed in building business applications as part of a multi-disciplinary team may have to find new interpersonal skills, as well as new coding styles, Chacon said. "Typically, programmers are good at hearing technical details, almost like building a puzzle in their minds," he said. "They're not accustomed to learning how to ask questions of people who don't understand the technical ramifications of their answers in a way that they receive accurate answers."

A Blend in Trend

Perhaps some professional programmers could become redundant. Microsoft's hobbyist editions are designed for newbies, after all. Just as sophisticated and cheap consumer Web design tools spawned legions of casual Web developers, perhaps these almost-WYSIWYG application development tools will let the marketing department initiate its own Web services, while human resources integrates its online forms with whatever it wants.

"What this trend is leading to, eventually, is more tiered layers of programming, where individual users will have a growing and increasingly useful set of tools for designing small, 'quick and dirty' personal applications that solve very specific needs," said Mike Masnick, president of Techdirt, an Internet research firm. "This won't take away from big applications, but will be used in an entirely new arena. There will still be a need for much more advanced programmers designing big applications."

But programming is already being "downsourced," said Clay Shirky, a professor in NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Department.

"Programming is spreading like mad. While there used to be at least one big hurdle to becoming a programmer, such as learning BASIC or COBOL, the barrier to entry has gotten pretty low."

The commercial software industry has gotten onto a "weird merry-go-round," Shirky said.

"You have to build big, complicated projects in order to handle enough users to pay for it all. But everyone has, in their daily life, little things that bug them. The tools are getting easy enough that whole new classes of problems are becoming amenable to programming."

Shirky calls this "situational software" -- highly personal applications designed for a particular social group or context by someone within the group.

Shirky's students have developed quick-and-dirty applications to rate and rank NYU instructors and to coordinate group take-out orders for food.

"The idea of software has previously been, 'you have to shoot for 100,000 users to make it worthwhile,'" he said. "Now, there may be only a dozen users. If it took me two hours to do [the programming], and it amuses my friends, I count that a good deal -- and they don't need to pay me for it."

Christopher Ireland, CEO of market research firm Cheskin, sees no end in sight for programming's exposure to the people.

"Where I really think these visual tools will make a difference is with younger kids and teens who will probably use them to customize games or just to play," Ireland said. "Eventually, [the visual tools] will result in more programmers -- or more adults thinking like programmers," said Ireland. "At that point, the tools will really start spreading out to a broader market."

The paid programmer holed up in a room punching a keyboard will never be obsolete. After all, according to DICE, a technical recruiting site, hard-core coders are still hot. Software is made by programmers for programmers. And the top programming languages demanded by employers are C, C++ and Java. So if WYSIWYG tools are going to change the demand for experienced developers, it won't happen overnight. But the wind is picking up in the industry, and it's not just for the experts anymore.