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Just how many darned developers are there in the world? GitHub is puzzled

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Just how many darned developers are there in the world?

At GitHub Satellite in London this week CEO Chris Wanstrath gave a great keynote about the ongoing revolution in software development. One of the themes was what on the face of it is a straightforward question – how many developers are there in the world? Of course the question is not straightforward. Counting people is always hard, and the definitions are slippery. I am not a statistician or actuary, but we don’t seem to have to have it pinned down.

Wanstrath said that the current commonly used estimate was 20m software developers. This figure though proved to be a bit of a strawman

According to Evans Data Corporation the figure in 2016 was 21m.

According to DataUSA there are 1.2m developers in the States.

In 2014 IDC estimated there were approximately 18.5m software developers in the world. Around 11 million of those were pros and 7.5 million hobbyists.

I have no idea how IDC could possibly come up with a number of hobbyist coders, but your methodology may vary. Not to criticise other research firms but for as long as RedMonk has been around we’ve had issues with how the industry did numbers. Market size prediction for example is generally guesswork, and often hilariously wrong, part of an industry investment machine that runs on vanity metrics. Meanwhile counting (purchasing) from the top down can lead to confusion and overly confident assertions. The classic example RedMonk uses is Linux market share. A few years back the professional numbers companies had the Linux horse race nailed down – to Red Hat, with Suse in a distant second. But RedMonk was talking to developers every day that were using Ubuntu. They just weren’t buying it, preinstalled, on a box from Dell or HP. On the cloud Ubuntu won.

So what instead might be some clarity metrics?

But just how many developers are there out there? GitHub is very well placed to know, given it’s where (so much) of that development happens today. It has telemetry-based numbers, with their own skew of course, but based on usage rather than surveys or estimates.

According to Wanstrath:

“We see 20m professional devs in the world as an estimate, from research companies. Well we have 21m [active] users – we can’t have more users than the entire industry.”

Warming to the theme Wanstrath talked about Atom, GitHub’s text editor.

“Last year we had 1m. Now we have 2m active users. If you are going to tell me there are 20m devs in the world and 10% are using Atom I just don’t believe that. I would love to see those numbers for Visual Studio Code and Sublime, which are also both growing strongly.”

The 2m number may actually be slightly low, because Atom developers have the option to turn off metrics and tracking. But Wanstrath’s argument is solid. The research company estimates seem out of whack.

So what about the world that doesn’t currently have telemetry information about tools usage? We’re at the very early stages of the great developer flowering. Consider that yesterday, while announcing its acquisition of Codenvy, Red Hat said only 5% of its customers were currently using automated build processes for CI/CD. What a great opportunity for Red Hat – to not just revolutionise how its customer base develops software, going forward, but to have active usage metrics as it does so.

I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that most developers using Github are indeed practising test-driven development (update. should have said “or at least using automated testing and build processes”). I guess my point is that if Github has 21m active users, Wanstrath is right that current estimates of the size of the developer population must be far too low. He didn’t make a prediction about what it actually might be – when you’re working with telemetry, after all, why make shit up?

I really like the approach in this post by npm trying to work out how many users it has. It discounts raw downloads (not a good measure of adoption in the age of the build server doing downloads) but correlates across web traffic, by unique IP. How many packages per run, and per IP. It’s super important to not just settle on vanity metrics but rather to grope forwards with sanity metrics and then clarity metrics.

npm’s final estimate is 4m users, doubling every year, which aligns pretty well with estimates from the Node Foundation. One assumes that growth will have to plateau pretty swiftly, especially if the total number of developers worldwide is anywhere around 20m.

But it could easily be far more. Are we under-counting China, for example, given its firewalls? India continues to crank out developers at an astonishing rate. Meanwhile Africa is set for crazy growth too.

Donnie Berkholz did some solid work on population growth while he was with us, modelling and accurately predicting Github user growth. It’s pretty amazing to think that Github hit 5m users in 2012, and is now at 20m.

RedMonk has been chronicling this revolution from the grassroots up since 2002. Developers, the New Kingmakers, are driving the change because of the availability, accessibility and affordability of tools and learning.

You certainly can’t just count computer science graduates or software industry employees anymore. These days you can’t even be an astronomer without learning code, and that’s going to be true of all scientific disciplines. Increasingly all engineering is software engineering.

The math(s) is still as hard as ever, but as online platforms such as Github and npm continue to grow, and the use of package managers for all languages do, we’ll have better metrics. My wild assed guess would be more like 35m.

If anyone has any data about IT developer populations, ideally telemetry oriented, that they can share with us RedMonk would love to hear from you. I agree with Wanstrath – 20m is way too low, and we need to work out a better estimate.

Disclosure: Red Hat is a client.

23 comments

  1. the question is, what is a developer ?

    I follow a lot of wildlife biologists on Twitter. A common theme is the wrangling of data in R and Python, and the necessity of knowing code and coding, which is not currently taught as part of their training. So all these folks are coding, though maybe not developers as such, since there is no profit or resale value to their work.
    https://twitter.com/wired/status/840388420472061955
    https://www.r-project.org/ could probably get an estimate of these numbers.

    Of the hundreds of laborers in the enterprise IT mines that I know, there are only a couple of Github users. So there is certainly a multiplier to be applied to the Github number, but I don’t know of any way to estimate it. Much of enterprise IT happens in the dark as far as web telemetry is concerned – all those mainframes running quietly and unexposed..

    1. thanks doug really useful and insightful.

    2. Agreed, the definition of developer is crucial to the question.

      While Doug made great points about who is missing from the count, I also imagine that if you’re applying the traditional definition of ‘developer’, there is also over-counting in the GitHub numbers. I, for example, am an active GitHub and Atom user, but I am definitely not a developer.

      While this says something interesting about how the industry approaches metrics, it also says a lot about GitHub that they assume their tools are only appealing to a strictly developer population. Compare this to competitors like Atlassian, which have stated growth goals of 100m users; either Atlassian knows something we don’t about the size of the dev market or they are trying to court users from broader markets.

      In short: I agree the developer community is likely undercounted, and I also think it’s interesting and telling to see how GitHub views their user base.

    3. I think “developer” is classified here as an “active github user”.

  2. Stack Overflow, the primary Q&A site for programmers worldwide get ~51 million unique visitors a month:

    https://www.quantcast.com/stackoverflow.com

    This would include amateurs and professionals, though would likely under count countries where English is less common. I’d expect *some* level of double counting, but not that high.

    So, 21 million is likely not even close.

    1. Oded – nice. we definitely see Stack as one the proxies, but it’s quite a self selecting audience too. if it is 51m uniques then agree 21m is snot even close. good data point

      1. Most Stack Overflow visitors (>90%) come via a search engine. Many, many of these people are not developers.

    2. I agree that the GitHub number is misleading and low. For example, the dozen people that I work with have never used GitHub, but we all write code daily for delivery to a customer for a fee. I think you should look at the number of Eclipse users as well. I didn’t see a reference to that tool, yet I use it daily and I use it on Windows (not Linux).

      Keep in mind that there are lots of small niche groups. There are still some developers out there using “vi” to write code using “C” using “gcc”, so they don’t have a true “IDE” that can report statistics about them, and a few more that are writing assembler using hardware tools. Both groups are still “coders” but figuring out how many there are will be very difficult. You might even find a few COBOL coders writing for IBM mainframes seeing that NASA is still using FORTRAN (hopefully not on card-decks still).

  3. “I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that most developers using Github are indeed practising test-driven development.”

    I strongly disagree, and would want to see some proof of this. I’ve worked at a lot of companies that use Github, and none of them used test driven development.

    1. john fiala – that is a great point on a totally untested assumption based on the usage patters of devs i know. i will talk to my team, and see if we can think of some ways to test the assertion. you think it’s waterfall monoliths on there?

      1. That line caught my attention as well. First you’d have to define test-driven, not every project with tests is driven by them, some are just tested… Also I browse quite a few projects on GitHub as part of my job, there are many who don’t have a single test in them.
        I think that statement is a bit of wishful thinking (a good wish to have to be sure).

  4. Not all registered Github users are developers. If one has a Samsung SmartThings Hub and wants to load community developed device managers, one will likely sign up for GitHub. That’s why I have a Github account.

    1. and that “registered users” figure is so misleading. I just did a query and found there were 13 million GitHub users. I don’t have the stat in front of me, but I remember reading that only 10% of “users” are active. In other words, most people get a username and then don’t use it often if it all.

  5. I recon there are only 10 million developers in the world.
    Supply and demand people – lets get this count artificially down, not up! 🙂

  6. I have two GitHub accounts: one for personal use, and one for me as an employee, because I have to keep development in these two areas separate. I also have had as much as three development machines, each one requiring a separate download of npm.

    The idea that most people on GitHub use test-driven development seems odd. I haven’t noticed such in most of the code I have perused.

  7. You can pick a number based on any metrics you want but the number isn’t important unless you also ask why. Why do they care what the number is? It’s all about the money. If you know what your potential customer base is (and where they are at) then you know where to focus your effort at growing your customer base. You’re using their product and you have money and they want it.

    1. dean absolutely right, but it also works the other way. vanity metrics are used to justify investment decisions and make claims about investment worthiness. marketing loves big numbers.

  8. I agree with Doug, ‘deving’ for over 15 years, would put the count at under 10 mill, i.e. excl. hobbyists, and who fundamentally see themselves as devs

  9. My 5 year old has a GitHugb account and my husband has multiple … just sayin’.

  10. […] Just How Many Darned Developers Are There In The World? GitHub Is Puzzled […]

  11. One more thing. The recent Stack Overflow survey (https://insights.stackoverflow.com/survey/2017) has 20% of web developers using Atom and 10% of desktop developers doing so. In other words, @defunkt should believe his stats — they’re dead on and accurate.

  12. […] many developers are there in the world? How many professionals are they? Is the market saturating? What are the […]

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