‘Barefoot developers are going to be people who live in this middle bit. At the moment, these are people like the teachers who make elaborate Notion spreadsheets for managing classes. Or students who make over-the-top personal dashboards. Or financial planning wonks producing extensive spreadsheets. They are people who are technically savvy and interested in solving problems for themselves and people around them, but don’t want to become fully-fledged programmers. They still live within the world of end-user-facing applications. At the moment, they rely on low and no-code tools. And they do wildly complex things within them, pushing these apps to their limits. They are the kinds of people who would be thrilled to have more agency and power over computers.’ — Maggie Appleton, “Home-Cooked Software and Barefoot Developers” (2024)

‘A joke that comes up often among AI-skeptical programmers goes something like this: “Great, now no one will have to write code, they’ll only have to write exact, precise specifications of computer behavior…” (implied: oh wait, that is code!) I suspect we’ll look back on this view as short-sighted. LLMs can iteratively work with users and ask them questions to develop their specifications, and can also fill in underspecified details using common sense. This doesn’t mean those are trivial challenges, but I expect to see progress on those fronts.’ — Geoffrey Litt, “Malleable Software in the Age of LLMs” (2023)

Why post this? At the time of posting, I’m about a fortnight into full-tilt, LLM-supported Python-wrangling, coming from a standing start, as part of this skill exchange with Tim. Appleton’s talk neatly threads the needle between my newfound software side-missions and existing interests in improvisation and appropriate technology; an overlap I’d begun exploring, tentatively, through the lens of situated software (also one of Appleton’s reference points).

Looking ahead, and with an ethnographic hat on, I’m interested in the motives and values of these “barefoot developers”, and how they differ from those of pro software devs. How do principles of tinkering and bricolage map to these new ways of building (brewing?) software? Can these new generative technologies support those trying to root their tools in local contexts and needs?

And: What new communities and practices might form around “barefoot programming”? Will they track or diverge from existing open source cultures? How will barefoot developers’ outputs be framed and judged? Are we looking at a steeper hierarchy or blurred boundaries? How might this reshape insider/outsider power dynamics and participation in software and technology?