Careers: Developers Embrace Moonlighting

More than half of all programmers moonlight -- as hobbyists, as contributors to open source projects, or, thanks to marketplaces like the AppStore, for fun and profit.

If you have application development skills, there's a better-than-even chance you've done some moonlighting in the last year.

According to application development consultancy Evans Data Corp., more than half -- 53 percent -- of all programmers engaged in moonlighting during the last 12 months. They're doing what they do best: programming, be it at home, in coffee shops, or in other extra-office contexts.

According to its survey of more than 400 software developers, a majority of programmers work on or contribute to software development projects during their free time.

Evans Data says the popularity of moonlighting is a function of several trends -- including the popularity of open source software and the growth of AppStore-like markets for mobile, tablet, and conventional (desktop) software packages. There's also the enjoyment and passion that many programmers feel for their work. That still counts, too.

"Moonlighting" can mean a lot of things, of course. According to Evans Data, a third (34 percent) of moonlighting developers spend between 20 and 40 hours on outside programming projects. Of this subset, nearly as many -- 29 percent -- say they spend 40 hours a week or more on their own app dev projects. Clearly, "moonlighting" in this context is very like having a second job.

Janel Garvin, CEO of Evans Data, says the survey helps answer at least one provocative question. "There's been a lot of conjecture over the last couple of years about just who are the people writing all those apps for app stores," said Garvin, in a statement. "While there obviously are specific companies focused on that space, and maybe a handful of hobbyists or students, we see lots of evidence that the bulk of those apps are being developed by the same developers who write traditional software for many types of companies as their day job."

In most cases, programmers say they moonlight because they want to improve their skill sets, although almost half (48.5 percent) say they develop software outside of the workplace because they enjoy what they do. Significantly, nearly one-third of developers moonlight by working on saleable apps: Evans Data found that these programmers "say they like the idea of creating an app, selling it, and making money on the side."

The popularity of moonlighting might be related to other factors: first, a kind of "fuzziness" about what's meant by the job description "developer" and second, the up-or-out programming promotion track that's de rigueur in many large enterprises.

A decade or more ago, says a former software engineer with Sprint Nextel, the terms "developer" and "software engineer" used to be more or less interchangeable; nowadays, he says, they connote distinctly different roles. The point is that many IT pros who have app dev skills and who work in app dev roles aren't necessarily doing any programming in their daily jobs. In this regard, moonlighting-by-programming can be a way of keeping one's skills fresh, acquiring new skills, interacting with programming peers -- particularly in the case of a free and/or open source app dev project -- or simply unwinding.

There's another wrinkle here, too. This IT professional says he left his job of eight years when he was confronted with a choice between being stuck in long-term application maintenance -- or "drone work," as he puts it -- and a programming management position.

Burned out on programming, and with little interest in management, this person says he made a career change -- to information security. "It's not necessarily that there's an immediate desire [on the part of programmers] to get out, but -- on the other side -- hiring managers tend to hire young people who are cheaper and who know the most contemporary languages and styles. The longer you go in that particular field of work, the outcomes are either you become a rock-star programmer or you find something to maintain: you become a drone."

For a developer stuck maintaining a dead-end application, he suggests, "moonlighting" on a new, interesting, or potentially lucrative app dev project can seem like anything but work.

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