The boom in the number of new developers entering the tech industry is raising concerns that a steep drop in salaries may be imminent. The fact that dev salaries have been rising consistently for the past two decades seems to heighten the general anxiety instead of relieving it, as there is a foreboding sense that the bubble may pop, so to speak – that the growth did not reflect market trends and may readjust quite suddenly.
Are these fears sensible? Nobody knows the future, of course, this writer least of all. But for what any prediction is worth, in this article we will look at our available knowledge and present the case that salary prospects for developers will indeed be transformed, only not in the way that the above scenario predicts.
The State Of The Industry
How high or low the salaries in any given industry are depends primarily on the supply of qualified workers in relation to the demand for work. For salaries to rise, the demand must be higher than the supply, while for them to fall, the opposite must be true.
In this sense, there is reason to be optimistic. Software is constantly finding new applications and there is no reason to think the trend will reverse. Blockchain is currently at the heart of the hottest innovations in finance, fields of public interest like health care, education and transport look set to be revolutionised by AI, the entertainment industry keeps breaking new ground in animation and gaming, a new social media platform appears with every generation that comes of age, and each of these fields will come with unique security challenges requiring the appropriate specialists.
The supply of workers has also been rising, as programming and data science become more and more widespread, popular and normalized in education. Unlike the development of the software industry itself, however, this growth is incremental rather than exponential. The total workforce can be expected to grow by 10-20% in the timeframe in which the number of tech applications grows by 60-100%. This means that, all other values saying the same, salaries should continue rising even as the workforce keeps growing.
Rise Of The Machines
One of the most important confounders that may get in the way of this process is, of course , automation. The emergence of software programs capable of writing code and performing simple tasks in fields like web development could lead to a reduction in the demand for work.
The question of whether this will actually happen is still wide open. Even if a program is capable of writing code, it still needs the appropriate input, and we are still a very long way from building something that can sift this input from the sort of vague and impractical specifications that clients so often provide for programmers. Many developers might very well just find a job as operators for automated programs, that new line of work being just as technical and specialised.
But even in the most far-fetched of hypotheses, it seems unlikely in the extreme that automation will reverse or even substantially affect the overall trend in salaries in only 10 years. The technology is simply not there yet, and even once the option to replace people actually becomes available, there will be a very long way to go before it becomes cost-effective.
Dawn Of A New Era
Everything about the state of the industry suggest that the salary of the average developer will continue to rise over the next decade. But this apparently straightforward conclusion is complicated by the fact that the “average” developer in its current state is slowly going extinct.
The long-term trend appears to be dichotomous: on one hand, the increasing popularity of tech-related subjects in higher education, alongside the appearance of bootcamps like ours, will see a proliferation of young, inexperienced developers entering the market. Inevitably, this will deflate the value of their skills. On the other hand, the increasing complexity of some of the core technologies (including those that allow for the automation of everything else) along with their widespread applications will make it harder and harder to find outstanding senior engineers, which will drive their salaries up.
Experienced and inexperienced developers, though obviously linked, are therefore best conceived of as two separate groups, with differing salary prospects. The experienced group should expect their salaries to not only keep rising but to accelerate the rise, as the exponential growth of the tech markets will outpace the rate at which the present junior developers are able to reach senior stage.
The inexperienced group are highly unlikely to see a reversal in the upward trends of their salary range within the next 10 years, but developments may become apparent relatively soon thereafter. The possible scenarios are two: either salaries will drop moderately, or else they will slow down their rate of growth as they converge towards a market equilibrium. Given the continued growth prospects of the industry as a whole, the latter scenario is perhaps marginally more likely, although be warned that economic predictions that far into the future are seldom little better than guess work.
What Are The Prospects?
If you are a junior developer or someone who is thinking of learning how to code, the above forecast may perhaps feel a little discouraging – but it doesn’t have to be. That’s because the correct adaptation strategy to a projected salary deflation is to do what is already part of the job description for any programmer – that is to say, to always keep learning, and particularly in those fields / trends / technologies which are gaining in popularity.
Keeping your knowledge up to date is a standard expectation for developers, and it should not scare you. There are ways to make sure you can do that even when work keeps you busy, and precisely because the demand for specialists is getting more and more urgent, there are entire subsets of the tech industry dedicated precisely to identifying emerging trends and helping people get on board with them. In other words, you are not alone!
Yes, if you’re a junior developer, you should expect the gap between your salary and those of your more experienced peers to grow larger and larger. But you should also not expect to stay a junior forever. Keep an open mind to to the new, and never stop learning – and those senior positions will be yours for the taking.