Programmer Staffing Levels Bottom Out

March, 2014

Over the long term, the number of application programmers as a percentage of the typical IT organization has been in decline. As organizations make more use of commercial software, reduce reliance on mainframes, rely on software as a service, or engage in outsourcing, they have less need of programmers. However, over the past few years, application development and maintenance positions have been holding steady in the post-recession era as organizations renew spending on capital projects and investment in mobile and enterprise applications.

As shown in Figure 1 from our study, Application Programmer Staffing Ratios, application programmers rose just slightly from 21.1% of the IT staff in 2009 to 21.4% in 2013, based on our annual survey of more than 200 IT organizations. While programmer staff has not regained its pre-recession levels, it has maintained its relative standing over the past five years. We actually began to notice a recovery in 2011, where the level rose from a low point of 19.1% in 2010 to 20.0% in 2011. In essence, staffing levels appear to have stabilized after hitting bottom in 2011.

App ProgrammerFig 1 - Programmer Staffing Levels Bottom Out

In addition to the effect of the recession on capital spending and programming staff, there may be longer-term trends at work, including growth in outsourcing, continuing decline in custom software development, and increasing use of cloud-based applications that helped depress the percentage of programmers within IT organizations. On the other hand, organizations are actively developing mobile applications, expanding ERP platforms, and making greater use of business intelligence systems. As such, it is not clear whether application programmers will continue to rise or resume their decline relative to other functional groups over the long term.

In addition to developing applications, enterprises need programmers to maintain systems, provide technical support, and modify existing systems, and programmers remain a key element of nearly every IT organization. With the changing environment, the need for programmers is in flux and IT organizations can benefit from periodic assessment of their application development and maintenance staffing levels.

The data in Figure 1 is useful for assessing recent trends, but for benchmarking purposes we make adjustments to the data in the full study to account for the effects of outsourcing. In addition, we report all staffing benchmarks as percentiles rather than averages. While averages are useful for assessing trends over time, percentiles provide a range of values that can be used to benchmark an organization’s current staffing level. The full study also uses three metrics to make that assessment: programmers as a percentage of the IT staff, users per programmer, and applications per programmer. We provide benchmarks for the composite sample, by organization size, and by sector.

We use the term “application programmer” to denote application programmers, systems analysts, software engineers, application architects, and other personnel who have programming skills and engage in the development and maintenance of applications. The category does not include operating systems programmers who are responsible for maintaining operating systems and other software in the IT infrastructure. The category also excludes managers who oversee development activity, and it specifically excludes personnel who fall into related but separate categories as defined by our IT staffing categorization system. These include quality assurance and testing personnel, business analysts, and project managers.

This Research Byte is a brief overview of our report on this subject, Application Programmer Support Staffing Ratios. The full report is available at no charge for Computer Economics clients, or it may be purchased by non-clients directly from our website (click for pricing).

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