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AI Improves Developer Workflow, Says Gradle Dev Evangelist

Trisha Gee from Gradle, the build automation tool, tells us how AI is impacting developer productivity. Plus, her career tips for young devs.
May 19th, 2023 10:00am by
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Developer tools are scrambling to integrate AI into their products, no matter which part of the developer workflow they cater to. One example is Gradle Build Tool, an open source build automation tool that has been around for fifteen years now. The company behind it, Gradle Inc, has been paying particular attention to AI, since it will fundamentally change the concept it coined: Developer Productivity Engineering (DPE).

I spoke with Trisha Gee, the lead developer evangelist at Gradle, about how AI is impacting the developer workflow. Prior to joining Gradle at the beginning of this year, Gee had over two decades of experience as a developer — mostly focusing on Java.

AI Is Additive for Devs

Gee says that her view on AI for developers has evolved rapidly. Similar to other senior devs I know, she initially dismissed AI’s significance. However, she has since recognized it as a valuable tool for developers.

She now thinks of AI as an addition to the developer’s toolkit, rather than a replacement for them. Trisha compares the evolution of AI tools to the advent of internet search engines like Google back in the 1990s, which quickly became indispensable for developers when troubleshooting problems. Just as using Google and Stack Overflow has made coding more efficient, she thinks leveraging AI tools to generate code and seek answers to specific questions will be the same.

Gee emphasized, though, that developers must still rely on their own expertise and experience to filter AI-generated code and apply it appropriately within their codebase. She believes that AI can accelerate development by reducing the time spent on repetitive tasks — like writing boilerplate code — and enabling developers to focus on the bigger picture, such as ensuring the code meets business requirements.

How ML is Used in Testing

As well as AI code generation, machine learning is used in products like Gradle Enterprise, which aims to save developers’ time by automating time-consuming tasks and eliminating wasteful activities.

For instance, Gradle Enterprise offers features like “predictive test selection,” which uses machine learning to run tests impacted by code changes, instead of running the entire test suite. This approach improves efficiency by focusing on relevant areas, Gee said.

I asked whether there was a big impact on tools like Gradle because of the potential errors output by code generation tools like GitHub Copilot?

She replied that, yes, having tools that generate code means there is a need for effective testing to validate the generated code, which is where Gradle comes in. She highlighted the significance of running tests quickly and efficiently, identifying failures, and avoiding repetitive failures across teams that are using code generation tools. She added that Gradle Enterprise can contribute to developer productivity by automating aspects of the testing process, similar to how code generation automates code creation.

The goal is not to replace developers’ work but rather to alleviate them from mundane tasks, she said, allowing devs to focus on the business problem at hand, ensuring the tests are meaningful, and verifying that everything operates as expected.

Gee added that Gradle Enterprise also utilizes machine learning for tasks like gathering data on builds, tests, and the environments they run on. This data-rich context presents opportunities for leveraging AI and machine learning techniques, she said.

Career Development in AI Era for Young Devs

Given her experience in the industry, I wondered if Gee had any advice for young developers entering the industry currently, when AI is both a potential boon and (perhaps) an existential threat to developer careers.

Gee highlighted the importance of being adaptable and having a willingness to continuously learn. While there may be new skills to acquire, she said, it is not a major problem as long as developers possess the ability to learn and adapt.

She mentions git as being another example of a new type of skill that developers quickly had to adapt to, when it first came out.

“​​10 years ago, 15 years ago, when I was doing a lot of Java user group stuff with graduates in London, a lot of the graduates were panicking because they came out of university without understanding git,” she said. “And it’s a gap in their technical skill set, sure, but it’s a gap that you learn [to fill] on the job. You don’t need to understand everything about git during your training process. You learn that on the job, you see how other developers are using it, you understand what’s required of you in your team, in your business.”

Ultimately, she thinks that the learning process for new developers will involve acquiring new skills related to AI, similar to how they learn other skills — like using search engines or writing automated tests. So she sees AI as a natural part of the learning journey, rather than a significant shift in the skills required for a career in development.

Don’t Fear AI

Overall, Gee cautions against fear and fear-mongering about AI replacing developers’ jobs. She compares the use of AI tools to code generation features in IDEs, which were initially met with skepticism but are now widely embraced for their ability to make developers’ jobs easier. AI tools can be similarly helpful, she believes.

She added that she herself has used ChatGPT in development work, for thought organization and problem-solving. So it has already been a positive tool in her own job.

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