Factors Behind the Decline in Application Development Staffing

February, 2021

The way that enterprise applications are internally developed and maintained has changed, causing the ratio of application developers to dip again for the third straight year. App developers are some of the highest-paid IT personnel, so it is vital that IT leaders periodically assess this staffing ratio.

As shown in Figure 1 from our full report, Application Developer Staffing Ratios, the ratio was 22.0% of the total IT staff at the median in 2020, down from 23.1% in 2019 and 24.5% in 2018. In 2017, the ratio stood at 25.8%, nearly six percentage points higher than it is today.

AppDevStaffFig12021 - Factors Behind the Decline in Application Development Staffing

However, simply looking at the staffing ratio does not tell the whole story. The larger picture involves some major trends. The increased use of certain IT management best practices—including agile and DevOps—has changed the number and type of developers needed. At the same time, companies are increasingly choosing software as a service (SaaS) and commercial software instead of internally developed software.

“IT organizations will always need to retain the talents of application developers, but the ground is shifting,” said Tom Dunlap, director of research for Computer Economics, a service of Avasant Research, based in Los Angeles. “Application developers are not the only ones building and maintaining software these days.”

In the growing low-code/no-code movement, IT personnel outside the development group, as well as power users in business units, are being empowered to create and maintain their own apps. These tools allow users to assemble new applications through drag-and-drop form builders, visual process modeling, and code reuse. And application-creation tools have become simplified and cost-effective to allow nonprogrammers (so-called citizen developers) to create useful apps from scratch without ever writing a line of code. Providers of low-code/no-code platforms include Appian, ServiceNow, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, and others.

At the same time, application maintenance activities are getting pulled in two directions. While the number and types of applications managed by the IT organization continue to rise, technology, best practices, commercial software, and SaaS are making software maintenance easier. Largely because of SaaS and agile development practices, in the long term we would expect a continuing slow decline of application maintenance work as a distinct job function. But because the footprint of business applications is becoming wider, we would not expect a smooth ride. Fluctuations will continue as organizations attempt to meet the challenges of digital transformation.

In light of these trends, what is the typical application development and support staffing level today? Our full report uses three metrics to make that assessment: application developers as a percentage of the IT staff, users per application developer, and applications per developer. We provide benchmarks for the composite sample, by organization size, and by sector. We also provide a benchmark for the larger application group, which also includes personnel engaged in web development and support, quality assurance and testing, data management, and business systems analysis.

This Research Byte is a brief overview of our report, Application Developer Staffing Ratios. The full report is available at no charge for Avasant Research Subscribers or may be purchased directly from our website (click for pricing).