The higher and further education sectors in the UK are fortunate to employ talented and dedicated software developers. Without them, many kinds of technical innovation would be significantly more difficult, more expensive or even impossible. While the patterns of employment of 'local' (locally employed) developers varies considerably between higher/further education institutions, it is rare for such institutions to invest strategically in their local development capacity.
Recognising this, the Jisc-funded DevCSI project (managed by UKOLN) was introduced to work with local developers, to understand better their potential as an under-utilised resource and to create opportunities for them to network together, sharing resources, ideas, code and solutions. With the network that DevCSI has successfully pioneered, an institution which employs a handful of developers locally gains the benefit of a sector-wide network of peers bringing different perspectives and experiences to bear in a shared context. Beyond the immediate sector, DevCSI has worked with open-source and commercial suppliers who recognise the value in the networked pool of development talent and expertise.
Jisc has been consistent in maintaining that the sector needs to continue to innovate if it is to be able to meet the long-term challenges of a radically changing environment. Institutions must be careful to maintain the capacity for technical innovation - indeed a recession is the right time to invest in change and innovation in order to emerge ready to exploit the opportunities of better economic times. In the difficult period ahead, one predictable response will be to outsource some software services, seeking the cost-savings and efficiencies promised by service-delivery paradigms such as Software as a Service. But there are risks associated with outsourcing services entirely, such as the associated reduction in local understanding and expertise, and the loss of capability to adapt to meet particular local requirements.
In the DevCSI project, we are working to establish an understanding of the changing role of the local developer in this likely new landscape with its greater dependency on remote, shared services. While recognising that they have some common requirements, we should not forget that our institutions have their individual ‘flavours’ too (this is surely part of what makes higher education in the UK so attractive internationally). For shared, remote services to be truly effective in a local context, they must be tailored to the needs of the users in that context.
DevCSI is steadily gaining traction in the UK - we have worked with related organisations such as OSSWatch and The Software Sustainability Institute and have organised events at many higher and further education institutions. Our work is even being recognised internationally, and we have been recently invited to help establish a similar initiative in Australia.
Where next for DevCSI? We’ve established a nascent community of developers in the UK and can already point to evidence of the value of this, some of which (such as peer-peer training) is even measurable in pounds, shillings and pence! While maintaining and growing this, we are now considering where best to focus our resources at a sector-wide level. One issue we have identified in the sector is the lack of career options for successful developers - other than to move into less technical management roles. Many of our best developers simply move out of the sector entirely in order to progress in their careers. An idea we are starting to explore is the possible development of a new role in the sector - the Strategic Developer - a developer who has both technical and domain experience, and who can contribute to strategic planning and decision making. Establishing such a role may take time but, as technology is undoubtedly going to play an increasingly important role in the future of further and higher education, so must we ensure that the people who understand the technology stick around long enough to be able to contribute at this level.
For more information, go to the DevCSI blog. Please do email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have questions about this work. My UKOLN colleague, Mahendra Mahey and I also presented on this work at the Jisc Conference, 2011 (slides).