Guest Opinion

Where Did All The Developers Go?

If programmers are leaving VB and aren't going to C#, where are they going?

Google Trends is a curious tool. It displays the relative popularity of search terms over time. Recently, a group of developers on a software-developers forum noted that over the past five years, searches for VB.NET have been declining to the point where they are now below those for C#.

This, of course, means nothing. For one thing, Visual Basic programmers use more than one search term (VB, VB.NET, Visual Basic), while C# programmers use only C#, so total VB searches, while trending downward, are probably still well above C#. Besides, the whole VB versus C# discussion is tiresome -- the framework is where the real excitement is. If C# use is growing at the expense of VB.NET, who cares?

Except that it isn't growing. The real surprise in the trend line was that C# searches have been flat for years. This prompts the question: If programmers are leaving VB and aren't going to C#, where are they going? Could it be that they're abandoning Microsoft technologies?

I checked the trend lines for other programming languages and platforms, including PHP, Perl, Java, JavaScript, and Flash programming. I discovered that C#, by holding flat, is doing well because every other "traditional" language is trending downward.

Why would this be? Perhaps developers are using Live.com instead of Google? I'd accept that if it were just the Microsoft languages, but LAMP programmers leaving Google for Live.com? I don't think so. Something real is happening.

Does use of language names as search terms correspond to the popularity of a language? After all, experienced developers don't often search for language names -- we're much better at refining our searches. People use language names as search terms when they're curious about them or when they're just starting out. They use them to find introductory articles and tutorials. So we're most likely looking at a specific population; new developers and those who are switching languages. Could the declining trend lines be indicating an overall drop in interest in computer programming? Could it indicate a movement away from traditional programming to newer platforms?

It's probably both. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and National Science Board concur: Enrollment and degrees granted in computer science programs have been dropping recently. This year many colleges (including top-tier programs such as MIT, Rutgers, and Berkeley) report lower enrollment. Carnegie Mellon, one of the top computer science schools in the country, had only 2,000 applicants for its computer science department, down from 3,200 in 2001.

Google Trends is little more than a curiosity, a signpost to reality. The surge of people who entered programming in the '80s is drifting away. Fewer people are entering the field. The software development world has fragmented, with programmers being drawn from mainstream-development platforms to new technologies such as iPhone and Facebook application development (both of which are trending upward).

There's another reality to be found on Google Trends. It also lists the regions, cities, and languages where a search term is most popular. Keeping in mind that language terms are most popular with beginners and those learning a new language, it's interesting to note that the top three regions for C# are India, South Africa, and Israel (the United States is No. 10), that the seven top cities are in India and China, and that the No. 1search language is Chinese. Indeed, similar region and language trends apply across every language and dev platform I checked.

Where have all the coders gone? Now we know. But perhaps the better question is: Where are the new coders going to come from? That's something you can help answer, by teaching your kids to code and by volunteering to help introduce or teach programming in your local schools and community colleges. And if you aren't part of creating the answer, don't complain if you don't like the answer you get.

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