Avoiding the "AI Skill Threat" Through Strategic Upskilling
May 06, 2024

Cat Hicks

Artificial intelligence (AI) is accelerating innovation in software development, enabling organizations to transform the quality of their platforms and products. However, amid this transformation, one important group is being left behind: software developers.

The failure to keep pace with AI-assisted workflows, the "AI Skill Threat," has created fear among developers that their skills will become obsolete as they adapt to AI-assisted coding.

To overcome this uncertainty, developers need strategic upskilling to ensure they remain a valuable asset to their teams and organizations. As AI continues to redefine how business is done, upskilling will play a critical role in mitigating the AI Skill Threat. By taking a more active role in developing the skills of its workforce, organizations will ensure they are future-focused and remain competitive.

Transforming into a New Era of Software Development

Software developers identify strongly with their profession and the core skills associated with it. The skill sets associated with technical work are often strongly entangled with developers' professional identities: a developer's sense of the holistic attributes, skills, knowledge, practices, and beliefs that define them as a part of the professional community.

For some developers, the introduction of AI-assisted coding tools may threaten to reshape professional identity. This identity reshaping may be catalyzed by these tools' functional capabilities — e.g., the capacity for a tool to "write code" — but it may be equally important to consider how developers are grappling with others' changing expectations for their roles. Where expectations and real functionality clash, anxiety may be heightened for developers who fear that failing to match unreasonable expectations of efficiency and production will have real career consequences.

Despite the upheaval of changing technical work, developers' lifelong learning and collaboration skills remain central to building software. There is hope in these strengths and values already embedded into software work that organizations should leverage.

With this deeper understanding of developers' aspirations, fears, and professional identities, we can make evidence-based, human-centered decisions that help developers thrive in this new world of AI-assisted coding.

Invest in a Culture of Learning and Belonging

The Developer Success Lab at Pluralsight surveyed over 3,000 software engineers and developers across multiple industries engaged in the transition to generative AI-assisted workflows. From this work, we found that engineers on teams that consistently ask developers to "prove" their technical competence, and believe "innate brilliance" is necessary for software work, are more likely to report they are impacted by the AI Skill Threat.

However, developers on teams that instead cultivate a collaborative culture of learning and belonging report lower impact of the AI Skill Threat, along with higher individual productivity and team effectiveness. By investing in learning culture and belonging in their engineering organizations, businesses can strengthen the resilience of developers and ensure greater success as teams transition to AI-assisted software development.

Organizations also need to address systematic group differences in developers' experiences with AI-assisted coding and shifting expectations for their roles. The AI Skill Threat is higher for racially minoritized developers, who were also more likely to give low ratings to the overall quality of AI-assisted code. Both female developers and LGBTQ+ developers were significantly less likely to report plans to upskill for new AI-assisted workflows and were more likely to report being left out of team adoption of AI.

These differences point to the critical need for organizations to ensure that AI-assisted coding adoption is equitable and accessible to everyone in their workforce. Key insights from developers with valuable perspectives on the risks of AI-assisted coding must be considered.

Safe Spaces and a Sense of Belonging

At the same time that upskilling initiatives are underway, it's important to give developers resources to augment the learning process and increase their sense of belonging within the organization's engineering rituals. These tools include facilitation guides and assessments that teams can use to measure the AI Skill Threat and track their upskilling progress in AI-assisted coding adoption.

Organizations need to provide safe spaces for developers to share their fears and concerns about AI-assisted coding with leaders and teammates. By investing in a learning culture and giving software teams clear room to experiment to define best practices in a collaborative and human-centered way, organizations can upskill their workforce and successfully address the AI Skill Threat head-on.

Cat Hicks is VP of Research Insights at Pluralsight
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