In the comments of a previous post, some commenters and myself began talking about the idea how the term “developer” is overloaded – that is to say, what is a developer, anyway?

Now, more than ever, when we have a culture that’s aiming to get more and more people learning to code than ever before, and when we have more technologies with which people can write code (and I do mean any kind of code – anything from HTML to assembly), we’re also paving the way for so many people to call themselves a developer [of sorts].

And you know how it goes: If everyone is a developer, then no one’s a developer. Yes, that’s a little trite. Perhaps a better way to say it that: if everyone is a developer, then everyone must develop the same type of things.

And those in technology know that that could not be further from the truth.

So, What Is a Developer?

To me, this is a matter of specificity. That is to say that what it means to be a software developer in the 70’s and 80’s has changed a bit. In fact, I’d say that the shift really began to happen in the 90’s and just accelerated once to hit the 2000’s.

What is a developer, anyway?

By that, I mean that if someone said they were a developer, there was a very clear and/or concrete idea as to what it was they did for a living:

  • At one point in time, it meant that people used punch cards in order to make computers do something.
  • At another point in time, it meant that people were using languages like Assembly and then C to make the computers do something.
  • …and then as technology progressed, it meant that people were beginning to create more and more things using different tools, languages and so on.

At this point in time, we’ve got more people labeling themselves as a developer than ever before. This rubs some people this wrong; others don’t really mind.

Though I’m of the latter camp, I understand why it bothers some (and I’ll come back to this in a minute).

For Everyone Else

When it comes to talking with the average person – and this has nothing to do with intelligence, but the average person as being someone defined outside of technology – then when asked what it is you do for a living, then saying “web developer,” “software developer,” or just “developer” is fine.

I say that because it means very little to me if someone is a commercial high-rise real estate developer or a mid-sized residential town home developer. In most cases – that is, unless I ask them to specify – saying they are into construction or they build high-rises or a homes for a living is usually sufficient.

Similarly, if someone tells me they are a doctor or they are in the medical field, then unless I’m really interested, I don’t push any further than that because there are so many variations in which a person can work in medicine that the odds of me understanding the nature of their job is pretty slim.

Along those same lines, people aren’t going to care if you’re a software developer who works with .NET and its associated technologies anymore than they’ll care if you write security software for financial institutions or if you build applications for iOS. To them, you just “work with computers.”

Unless someone asks you to clarify what it is that you do for a living, I don’t think it’s worth saying that you’re a front-end developer who works with HTML and templating languages as well as client-side scripting languages and CSS preprocessors to create the presentation layer of web applications.


That’s jargon and it doesn’t matter (but programmers, for one reason or another, often think that it does and so it’s offered up as their first explanation).

For Developers

Obviously, this is where it’s worth being more specific. After all, if I was to tell any one of you I was a developer – or vice versa – then it’s likely you’d follow up with asking “what kind of developer?” or “what languages and tools do you work with?” and I’d likely follow up the same with you.

It’s not because there’s any attempt to one-up one another (although I do believe some programmer-types are exactly like that), but it’s out of sheer interest and curiosity for what you do for a living because it’s likely that I’ll not only have a surface level of familiarity with it, but that I’ll also be genuinely interested in hearing the kinds of things you do each day.

And this is typically reciprocated, as well.

So the whole point of this entire post is basically just showing that:

  • The term “developer” is overloaded such that it it’s very, very generic – arguably now more than ever – but unless you’re part of the same field, it doesn’t matter.
  • Fellow developers are the ones who will likely care the most about what you do for a living.

Of course, this won’t stop certain people from arguing that you should specify exactly what it is that you do for a living, nor will it make other people care.

So, yeah, the term is overloaded but only is so far is how we use it among the company we keep. To that end, be as specific as the situation warrants. At least, that’s what I find to work the best.