Build 2021: Code abstraction and automatic code generation

Microsoft’s annual software developers’ event, Build, opened up with the company’s CEO painting a picture of opportunity for software developers

Microsoft has kicked off its annual Build 2021 virtual conference with a keynote from CEO Satya Nadella discussing the increasing importance of software development. Then he spoke about the power of GPT-3, the artificial intelligence engine from OpenAI, which is capable of generating code automatically.

In his opening remarks, Nadella discussed the challenging year everyone has faced due to the pandemic. “Over the years, you have shown what is possible, helped society overcome enormous challenges, while at the same time overcoming your own challenges,” he said.

Drawing on previous comments he has made about tech growth relative to GDP (gross domestic product), Nadella said that by 2030, technology spending will account for between 5% and 10% of GDP, driven by digital transformation projects.

He believes there will no longer be a separate tech sector and said: “As technology is embedded into everything, the world will be transformed. Organisations will build their own technology capabilities or be left behind.”

As evidence of this shift, Nadella said that over the past two years, the number of developers in non-tech businesses has grown more quickly than in tech businesses. “In automotive, there are more software engineers than mechanical engineers and in the last year, we saw growth in every region,” he said.

According to Nadella, the coronavirus crisis has also led to an eight-fold increase in software developers working remotely.

These are among the trends driving Microsoft’s strategy for software developers, said Nadella. He described why the massive technological and societal shifts that are taking place will create opportunities. “Every organisation in every industry in every country will require ubiquitous computing power,” he said.

Microsoft wants to be seen as the preferred platform for software development, he added. “Our ambition is to be the platform for platform creators.”

As every company becomes a digital business, Nadella predicted the emergence of industry-specific SaaS (software-as-a-service) products. Unlike a microservices approach, these will embrace high-level application services and reuse applications as services, he said. Such an approach to software development would accelerate the time to develop new applications, he added.

Introducing the company’s new PowerFX natural language processing feature for its Power platform, Nadella described how this type of code abstraction is taken to an entirely new level, where the code within application functionality is generated automatically using GPT-3. “If you can describe what you want to do in natural language, GPT-3 will generate a list of the most relevant formulae for you to choose from,” he said. “The code writes itself.” 

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As well introducing automatic code generation, Nadella addressed what Microsoft was hoping to do to support emerging hybrid work patterns. “Hybrid work will be complex and will require a new operating model and changes to processes,” he said.

Microsoft positions Teams as its platform to support hybrid work patterns, said Nadella. This is now evolving into a platform for running applications. To achieve this, he wants to bring collaboration to the forefront of application design, to enable developers to create applications that offer the potential to transform business.

Discussing the event, Nick McQuire, chief of enterprise research at CCS Insight, said: “Microsoft Build is always a bellwether event for the tech industry. Developers have never been more critical to the success of businesses and we are continuing to see the role of the developer change in light of the new ways of working and dramatic technology change we have seen over the past year.”

Looking at the launch of Power FX with natural language processing through GPT-3, McQuire said that in recent years, Microsoft has been on a mission to drive greater integration of its products to improve the productivity experience of every developer. “By bringing together GPT-3 and Power FX, we are not only seeing the first phases of natural language processing [NLP] at scale becoming more widely available, but Microsoft is also being much more aggressive in infusing some of its most advanced AI into key products like Power Platform to make life much easier for developers,” he said.

“NLP is arguably the hottest area of competition in AI at the moment and Microsoft’s steps here indicate that its partnership with OpenAI is starting to pay off in terms of widening access and accelerating the speed of development.

“The phenomenal success of Teams over the past year means that it has morphed into a very credible developer platform in its own right during this period. It is no surprise that the extensibility of Teams for developers and third-party applications remains a critical focal point in Microsoft’s overall strategy and direction.” 

Commenting on the work Microsoft is doing to progress Teams as a platform for hosting applications, McQuire said: “The developer community remains critical to the long-term survival of Teams, both in helping to create more process-oriented apps for use on the platform and in enabling customers to develop their own customisations to embed Teams more deeply into their businesses.

“Added to this is the acceleration of third-party applications within the platform and you have a picture emerging where Teams is moving to a new level and getting stickier and stickier within organisations.” 

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