Microsoft sometimes takes a few arrows for being open to absolute programming beginners. In some other parts of the software world -- not to be named here -- the barrier for consideration is high, and the novice is shunned.
Over the past few years, somewhat under the influence of the open-source software movement, Microsoft has ratcheted down the cost of its entry-level Express development tools line, further opening up its software to students, beginning developers, and even hobbyists.
It has just gone even further in its effort to bring software development to the masses. Microsoft has launched the Beginner Developer Learning Center -- a Web site designed to introduce absolute beginners to the programming with its Visual Studio 2005 Express Editions products. The site offers 45 programming lessons (provided as video/audio, documentation, and hands-on labs) and 31 How-To videos. The key new ingredient, according to the company, is that the learning aids are all created to help people that know nothing about software.
''We want to provide a step-by-step learning path and absolute-beginner learning content,'' said Dan Fernandez, lead product manager for nonprofessional tools at Microsoft. ''That includes including more snack-size learning.''
Fernandez said that Microsoft Visual Studio Express software had achieved more than 10 million downloads since the original Express packages were released in late 2005. He said the initiative to create the Beginner Developer Learning Center arose out of survey results that showed that most site visitors wanted beginner content.
''That surprised us,'' he said. ''It was the case no matter what they were downloading. Beginner content was the one thing that they wanted even for advanced stuff like C#.''
''We really had to lower the bar and not assume everyone knows some of these things,'' Fernandez continued. He pointed to elements such as variables, objects, and methods as basic concepts to which users want to be introduced.
Fernandez notes that most Microsoft development content is, naturally, written by software professionals for software professionals. That can be a bar to some, he said, noting one survey verbatim that summed up some people's experience with the existing Express site: ''Your documentation looks like it's done by professionals for professionals. You need to write for an eighth grader.''
What does all this mean to the professional developer and development manager? Well it might mean that they may expect a steady stream of Microsoft-savvy talent entering the workplace in years to come. After all, some of these folks are someday likely to cozy up to the notion that they could get paid to program.
A lot of Microsoft's initial success came on the shoulders of people using its inexpensive technology to go around established IT fiefdoms. While open-source software has threatened that original model, it appears the company is quickly reacting to the challenge.
And it is ready to 'go back to school' to do it. Says Microsoft's Fernandez: ''We are unique in this area.''