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Rise of the “Citizen Developers,” Microsofts Stack Overflow bot makes programming easier


Imagine being able to build mobile applications and applications without ever having to know how to code. That’s where we’re headed, and it’ll be here sooner than you think.


A little while ago I wrote an article on a new first of a kind Artificial Intelligence (AI) agent from Microsoft called DeepCoder that could write its own code and mini applications, and potentially much more. For example, soon, using conversational interfaces there won’t be anything from stopping you, as a non-coder or “Citizen Developers,” as they’re rapidly becoming known, from talking to DeepCoder and telling it about the type of application you’d like it to build for you. Then, off it will go to sites like Stack Overflow and Github where it will identify and scrape the code it needs to complete the task, and pull it together and compile it for you to create the app for you. Voila, one app and no coding skills needed – and given the fact that developers are in very high demand and very short supply these new so called Low Code, No Code and Rapid Application Development (RAD) programs are quickly becoming all the rage.


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Now, in an attempt to take things, albeit gently, to the next level and help developers “stay in the zone” and build programs faster, Microsoft has teamed up with Stack Overflow to create a bot that will answer your programming questions from inside their Visual Studio code editor.


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The bot in action


The bot responds to English language queries about programming, retrieving what it deems to be the most relevant answers from the millions available via Stack Overflow.

Queries can relate to any of the broad sweep of languages and software development-related topics covered on Stack Overflow, and the bot is also able to offer up simple code snippets and parse text from screenshots.


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In a demo of the bot at Microsoft’s Ignite conference in Florida last week, the bot asked for an example of an input and the desired output. On being given ‘Joseph Sirosh’ as the input and ‘Sirosh, J.’ as the output, it took about five seconds to generate the pseudocode for rewriting names in this way. Meanwhile, another demo saw the bot extract text from a screenshot of an error message and pull up information about how to resolve it.

“We want you to spend less time searching for answers and more time writing code,” said David Fullerton, CTO at Stack Overflow at the conference.

“We believe developers are writing the script for the future and our goal is to help you move faster and get more done.”


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At the moment though Microsoft’s latest bot bot will take a good deal of setting up, and rather than being available as an online demo, Microsoft has created a GitHub page with the necessary JavaScript code and instructions for setting it up, and if you want to try it out for yourself you’ll need to be running Node.js v08.14 and will also need to set up an account with Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform because, as you’d probably expect, it relies on a variety of Azure services, including Bing Custom Search, LUIS, QnA Maker, and Text Analytics, each of which have to be set up using the instructions on the GitHub page.

Once installed though it can be set up to run in a side panel within Microsoft’s Visual Studio IDE, working as a VS code extension, and again, the necessary instructions are available on the GitHub page.


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Fullerton, who wrote a blog about the new bot, says the bot is a demo of what is possible and he hopes other developers will build upon the sample code for the Stack Overflow Bot to create other AI assistants that draw upon the site’s extensive repository of programming knowledge.

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