Where have all the developers gone?

These days, it seems like the constant refrain in the Boston area is, "Deborah, can you find us a database and web developer who is highly qualified and willing to work with small nonprofits?"

It's really difficult right now, but I'm not surprised, because it's part of a larger trend that I started to worry about two years ago.

We've had a real dry spell in funding for nonprofit technology in our region. In the past few years, a lot of extremely talented young techies, who would have been thrilled to take jobs with organizations that strive to make the world a better place, have searched in vain for work. I hear from the ones who have become embittered and taken jobs in other regions or other sectors. It isn't difficult for them to find work, because they have solid skills in the proprietary web and database platforms that are used in every sector.

Fortunately, the developers who have stuck around (in the region and in the nonprofit sector) are very good. Unfortunately, even the most brilliant web and database developer, no matter how utterly devoted to serving the nonprofit sector in Massachusetts, only has 24 hours in any given day.

Meanwhile, the new cohort of young idealists is emerging. These folks tend to be recent college graduates who want to make the world a better place, through open source software. (The latter is variously known as free, libre, FOSS, and FLOSS.) They aren't waiting for nonprofit organizations to create staff positions for them as web and database developers; they are starting their own development and consulting firms, and working on the FLOSS projects that interest them.

This new cohort of idealistic techies - and the tools that they are developing for use in the nonprofit sector - comprise an amazing boon to our work. In the future, we will probably reap benefits that we can't begin to foresee right now.

However, in the meantime, the nonprofit sector in our region is stuck with an embarassing problem of our own making. Most of the FLOSS tools currently under development are not mature enough to serve the immediate, every day needs of nonprofits. So we have a cohort of idealistic young techies who don't want to develop databases or web sites with the platforms that we are currently using, and a cohort of embittered techies who have the skills to work with the platforms we use but have already fled the scene.

What are we going to do? I'd like to encourage my colleagues to brainstorm about this.

(This item is based an article from my blog, "Technology for the Nonprofit and Philanthropic Sector.")

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