The Rise and Fall of Programmers on the IT Staff

May, 2015

Just as IT budgets and investment in business applications have begun to recover, it appears application programmers have begun to decline as a percentage of overall IT staff headcount. It is not clear whether this is the beginning of a long-term trend or merely a response to the cyclical recovery in IT hiring.

As shown in Figure 1 from our study, Application Programmer Staffing Ratios, application programmers declined from a median 22.2% of the IT staff in 2012 to 19.8% by 2014, just as the recovery in IT budgets gained strength. The three-year trend is reversal of the upward course that application programmers had been experiencing.

AppPgmr Fig 1 - The Rise and Fall of Programmers on the IT Staff

These ratios will vary by organization size and should not be used for benchmarking. But the trends for the composite sample will hold true for most organizations and will be more pronounced for larger organizations, which make the most use of programmers.

Neither trend indicates headcount is rising or falling, but only that it is changing as percentage of the total IT staff headcount. The decline over the past three years may have more to do with the resumption of IT hiring in other areas than with any actual decline in the number of programmers.

Organizations are actively developing mobile applications, expanding ERP platforms, and making greater use of business intelligence systems. With investment in enterprise applications continuing to show relative strength, programmers who develop, customize, integrate, and support these applications should be in demand. However, the ongoing retirement of mainframe systems and rising investment in subscription software is also reducing need for IT staff programmers. As such, it is not clear whether the current downward trend in the programmer staffing ratio will flatten out or continue on its slow, downward course.

Application programmers make up the single largest portion of the IT staff in most organizations today, on average about one-fifth of the IT organization headcount. 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, subscribe to software as a service, or engage in outsourcing, they have less need of programmers.

However, in the post-recession era, organizations are continuing to invest in and maintain mobile and enterprise applications, 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.

What is the typical staffing level today? In the full study, we use three metrics to make that assessment: programmers as a percentage of the IT staff, users per programmer, and applications per programmer. For benchmarking purposes, we provide metrics by organization size and provide a range of values, from the 25th percentile to 75th percentile, within which typical organizations fall.

This Research Byte is a brief overview of our report on this subject, Application Development 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).

Do you also need staffing ratios for other IT job functions? Consider this collection of all of our staffing ratio reports, which bundles them all into a single report at a significant discount: IT Staffing Ratios–Special Report Bundle.