Software developers are in the enviable position of having the power to shape the future.

This is according to software expert Cliff de Wit, who says it’s an exciting time to be in the industry, but also a time for reflection on the ethics and responsibilities of software development.

De Wit is the former chief innovation officer at Microsoft, and now chief technology officer and co-founder of Dexterity Digital, a new digital business within the Metrofile group.

De Wit, who will be the keynote speaker at the annual DevConf developers’ conference in Johannesburg and Cape Town in March this year, says developers today are in a privileged position. “As software becomes increasingly crucial in business and daily life, software developers are playing a key role in shaping the world of the future,” he says.

He notes that 18 years ago, developers primarily wrote code from scratch, whereas now they ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’, using evolved toolsets and architectures to focus more on ‘software composition’.

“The devil is still in the detail, and there is still a requirement to know what you’re doing, but the pace of productivity has increased,” he says. “Developers are using higher level building blocks, which allows them to be more productive, and as software expands across all realms, they are broadening the domains they work in. Instead of just enterprise software, they are now becoming involved in software for everything from fridges to cars.”

Scope for SA software sector growth

De Wit believes there is huge scope for growth in South Africa’s software development sector, and that skills development will be key to supporting that growth. “Developers need to stay curious, stay current and keep learning. This year, I believe machine learning and AI are important areas to develop skills in.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of content and learning sites to support self-learning.” De Wit notes that self-learning is likely to emerge as a key tool for developer upskilling in South Africa, where scores of youths lack the means to attend tertiary institutions.

“Academic institutions are changing, but a lot of the digital skills South Africa needs won’t come out of these formal institutions in future – I foresee that in future, many more developers will be self-taught and peer taught. We may even move to a model whereby self-taught candidates are simply certified by formal institutions.

“For those with the aptitude, software development is an exciting career choice, with a lot of potential,” he says. “Software development is only going to become more relevant, and it paves the way for more entrepreneurial activity in South Africa. It’s a skill that’s highly portable, and lends itself to outsourcing business and software development shops. At Microsoft, we supported over 3,500 software start-ups, and there are significant opportunities for growth in development companies, which could be a huge driver for the South African economy.”

Developers lack a ‘Geneva Convention’

Ethical software development has become increasingly important in this brave new world, says de Wit.

“With great power comes great responsibility. If you consider that software powers so many things in our lives, such as access to funding, or who qualifies for university access or home loans, the developers behind the software need to understand the impact their software can have.”

Ethics in software development is a new and evolving field, as the role of the developer enters a phase of rapid change, says de Wit.

De Wit says major players such as Microsoft have started suggesting a ‘Digital Geneva Convention’, but that no formal conventions or guides exist for ethical software development yet. “At the moment, ethical software development is an industry responsibility, and developers themselves need to take the time to understand the consequences of what they are doing. They need to ask; ‘is this for the good of humankind, or is it unethical commerce hunting; do I feel comfortable, ethically, with what I’m doing?”

De Wit will unpack the role of the developer in his keynote at DevConf, South Africa’s top forum for software developers, where top speakers will address topics ranging from designing office warfare artillery through to new approaches to old developer problems.

Now entering its fourth year, DevConf 2019 will be staged at the River Club in Cape Town on 26 March and Vodacom World in Midrand on 28 March. DevConf is presented in Johannesburg in partnership with Platinum Sponsor Allan Gray, Micro Focus and Obsidian, Gold Sponsors EOH and Synthesis, Silver Sponsors Equal Experts, Offer Zen and Luno, Bronze Sponsor DVT and Refreshment Sponsor BBD software development. DevConf Cape Town is presented in partnership with Platinum sponsor Obsidian, Gold Sponsors Allan Gray and TFG Infotec, Silver Sponsor Equal Experts, Bronze Sponsor Offer Zen, Bag Sponsor Saratoga, wifi sponsor Luno and Refreshment Sponsor BBD software development.