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The class of developers: a challenge for social science

By September 29, 2017March 4th, 2019No Comments

Paris Chrysos, Professor of Innovation Management, ISC Paris

Published on September 28th, 2017 in Paris Innovation Review.

Creative Commons – Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0


Developer innovation has been at the very heart of the digital revolution since its beginnings and is still leading social and economical transformations induced by emerging technologies. Yet, developers as a class have largely been ignored by research in Human and Social Sciences. This disregard may be related to the fact that they cannot be classified using specific social or economical statuses without leaving out the underpinning dynamics making them special. To seize those dynamics, one has to acknowledge a fundamental distinction between “day job” and “side-project,” characterizing their modus operandi. This “double game” has implications in both the way we conceive action in general and the way technological potential is explored in the industrial field. In their movement, developers also create new forms of organization supporting their personal explorations, such as the Barcamps and the Hackathons.

For developers, personal and technological development are intertwined. Three portraits can illustrate their statutory dynamics: Jay, Michael and Lefteris.

Self-development through side-projects

Jay developed an application for eBay. While many users of the popular platform operate singular transactions (selling or buying a second-hand item), Jay used it more extensively, operating multiple transactions of similar items to gain a marginal profit. To manage those transactions, he developed an application in his free time, automating logistics and accounting tasks related to this activity. Yet, while developing an application for his own use, Jay envisioned a new venture: selling the application per se, thus becoming a User-Developer-Entrepreneur (UDE). Nevertheless, own use is very different from consumer use: a consumer expects all features of a product developed by an enterprise (e.g. the design has to be user-friendly, customer support must be available etc.). Not willing to invest more of his personal time to such an end and facing an emerging competition, Jay finally abandoned the project. Still, he used it for his day-job, as a case study to teach project management in his course at the University of Whichita, Kansas.

While Jay is a Computer Engineer, Michael is a Mathematician. I met Michael at a free seminar at the Twitter Headquarters in San Francisco, lecturing on a new programming language in his spare time. He entered the field before the dot-com bubble, working in a spin-off founded by a Professor at Stanford. The start-up being drifted away – like so many others – during the bubble, Michael got hired by Amazon and became its platform architect for several years, before moving to Google. For Michael, development of new technologies was more a professional than a personal activity, even though he didn’t follow a standard career path. Thus we can describe him as a Developer-Entrepreneur (DE), acquiring skills and using them to make a living.

Lefteris had studied nursing, his second passion after computers. However, he managed to combine his two passions by working in a clinic for technologies of sleep. With some friends, he animated, a basement in a suburb near Athens where people can hang out and use various equipment. Echoing NASA’s Space App Challenge, some members of this hackerspace developed SATNOGS (Satellite Networked Open Ground Station), an open design and DIY network of ground stations for satellites. Winning a prize from another competition, the group then used the resources to found the Libre Space Foundation, further pursuing the exploration of space their own way. Lefteris got involved in this process for his personal pleasure, far beyond his day-job, thus being a User-Developer (UD).

As those three portraits illustrate, developers can be characterized by their side-project rather than their formal diplomas or their actual day job. For Management Science, measuring collective action is of fundamental value. Measuring, however, the impact of developers’ action is not evident. For instance, such a measurement cannot be done through standard methodologies such as the measurement of the population of Richard Florida’s Creative Class (i.e. through the analysis of the demographic data related to a list of occupations). During a recent presentation of my work at the OECD I suggested that a relevant measurement could come from statistics related to specific instruments developers use to create applications (the Application Programming Interfaces – APIs). Still, such a measurement could mainly provide approximate results, as a developer is free to use multiple accounts for a given API.

This problem of precision is at the same time one of the sources of the phenomenon: the wide accessibility of instruments for developers is one of the key factors enabling the further expansion of this population, as the process of becoming a developer is open. However, the importance of this class lies mainly in its qualitative, rather than its quantitative characteristics, as it appears to defy the way collective action has been conceived during the modern era.

Challenging statuses

Until our days, spare time activities have been related to leisure are thus usually not taken seriously. However, a look into the origins of the statutory theory may provide a qualitative understanding of the importance of projects that are undertaken during one’s personal time, beyond his formal status. These origins can be traced back in the upheaval of the 15th century and the work of the French lawyer Jean de Terrevermeille (1370-1430). Defending the position that King Charles VI couldn’t refuse the succession to the throne of his son, Charles VII, Terrevermeille founded in his Tractatus a distinction between private property and status: being King was about bearing the corresponding responsibilities of a public function, rather than enjoying the benefits of private heritage. Hence, the crown should be attributed to the King’s son, despite the King’s refusal, as it belonged to the public, not himself. Of course, it took more than Terrevermeille’s arguments to mark such a shift in history – namely a war, La Guerre de Cent Ans, the unfolding of which played a crucial role to the acknowledgement of this new rule.

Throughout the history, the introduction of a variety of statuses contributed to the constitution of modern state, as well as of modern enterprises, enabling the distinction of roles and the composition of large organizations until our days. For instance, the fact that a member of an Administrative Board cannot command an employee of the organization, unless explicitly given an executive status, is a precondition for a complex division of labor to take place, where each level of command corresponds to specific responsibilities. In sum, we broadly accept today that a status provides both the legitimacy to exercise an authority and the corresponding framework of responsibilities.

Thus, exercising an activity beyond one’s status hasn’t always been a self-evident possibility. In fact, the most important theories of action are based in the presupposition that statuses are already in place.

Max Weber, among the great fathers of sociology, largely bases his categories of sociology in what he calls “Legitimitätsglaube”, i.e. the faith in legitimacy. For Weber, a form of legitimacy corresponds to a faith in legality, which he conceives as the submission to formally correct statuses. Interestingly enough, for Henry Fayol, one of the fathers of management, personality plays also a crucial role. More precisely, he argues that, to become a good boss, personal authority is an indispensable complement of the statutory authority, a dimension of his work which is, nevertheless, often omitted in managerial models.

In any case, the openness of contemporary technologies challenges the standard statutory vision of actors. On the one hand, high-tech is more and more available at a cost that individuals can afford. On the other hand, spare time is free from the constraints of a public or a professional function.

Still, such a liberty requires a framework supporting personal aspirations and new skills development. Thus, developers have invented new forms of organization, adjusted to their will to explore new technologies. Barcamps and Hackathons are exemplar cases of such forms.

Barcamps & Hackathons: autonomous and technology dependent intimate milieus

Barcamps are ephemeral gatherings that can take place in various places, depending on the organizers: the headquarters of an enterprise or an institution, co-working spaces, a coffee shop. Usually, organizers designate a broad topic to explore through an open call for participation. The event starts with the self-presentation of the gathered participants, who then formulate collectively the program of the discussions to take place. Depending on the available rooms and time-slots, small groups emerge around the proposed concepts to discuss. At the end of the event, all participants gather again for the last time and each group provides a summary of what has been discussed.

Hackathons are exploratory events and, as in Barcamps, participants are invited through an open call. More focused and more intense than Barcamps, they start with a seminar on the new State of the Art implied by the introduction of the new technology. Then, participants suggest concepts to explore based on this technology and invite others to join them in an intensive development exercise that lasts almost three days (and nights). During this exercise, the providers of the technology can check the way it’s used by developers, while participants are free to develop the concept they like. Finally, all teams present their applications or prototypes. All creations illustrate aspects of the potential of the technology, while the best are awarded.

Both in Barcamps and in Hackathons, no particular status is required to become an organizer or a participant. Besides, there’s no authority to designate the groups of people that will be formed or the concepts that will be explored. Both events just provide opportunities at the expense of personal time invested. However, while in Barcamps the responsibility of the possible outcomes is shared among the participants, in Hackathons it is on the organizers to “nourish” the exploration with knowledge on the specific technology, while the existence of an award also implies competition among the groups.

The possible outcomes from the two types of gatherings are both cognitive and social. In Barcamps participants can find people interested in the same, emerging topics and network or even start a community on a specific theme. In parallel, they can get informed about the recent trends in a field and attempt to foresee its future evolution (in terms of uses, markets or technologies). Hackathons provide the opportunity for a more targeted networking among those maintaining a technological platform and those using it, but also the occasion for the creation of a developers’ community around it. In addition, they provide insights on the opportunities a technology may offer, as well as the chance to acquire relevant skills.. Both organizers and participants can get a fresh view of what could be done with the technology in question.

Both cases differ seem to ignore basic assumptions of usual social settings. Even in the loose forms of coordination through social networks, one is expected to be able to identify who knows whom. On the contrary, Barcamps and Hackathons are designed to be open to surprises, gathering a public of strangers, beyond a specific network. In addition, they create a sort of intimacy, a friendly environment where everyone can be exposed. Thus, a concept that may not be feasible or useful may be proposed, incomplete interfaces or platform documentations may be tested, utopian or naive ideas can be discussed. Such an environment is coherent with the developers’ personal ventures and the shift from a status to another (e.g. from user to entrepreneur). Being able to get exposed is also being able to test and to explore potential identities.

Foggy Economy: rationalizing while exploring

Far from being a marginal or just a personal issue, the processes unfolded by the developers is in the heart of current industrial and societal transformations. I propose the notion of Foggy Economy to designate a contemporary condition where the location of value remains largely unknown. For instance, we feel that “blockchain” technologies have a great potential, but we largely ignore how to exploit it in different contexts. A part of the potential of new technologies gets to be known, thus a process of rationalization takes place, with the introduction of new forms of statuses. At the same time, another part of the same potential remains yet to be explored, thus we continue to engage in open, exploratory processes, seeking to be surprised.

This article has initially been the object of a presentation in the seminar “The Californian Model,” organized by Monique Dagnaud and Olivier Alexandre at EHESS PSL Research University.