What our heroes tell us about ourselves

Yesterday I was at a dinner and I was asked by a smart business person whether today’s young software engineers are more tuned in to business issues than the software engineers of the past. It wasn’t a question I had thought much about, but fairly quickly – and happily – I concluded that they are. Why? What’s changed?

To start, today’s young software engineers have different heroes. In the 80’s, a software engineer might have idolized Ken Thomson or Dennis Ritchie. They earned advanced degrees and invented programming languages (C) and operating systems (Unix). They worked at places Bell Labs. They weren’t billionaires.

In the 90’s, Bill Gates was on top of the world. He dropped out of school to found Microsoft and made billions on an empire based on DOS and Windows. He was more commercial than the previous generation of heroes, but still made his fortune building technology.

Fast forward. Google rules the world, Larry and Sergey are the heroes. Then Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. The billions are arriving younger and faster, but something else has changed. The companies are no longer selling technology. Many people think of Google and Facebook as technology companies. They certainly employ a lot of technical people and technology is critical to their business, but they don’t sell technology. The use technology. Their product is you, and their customer is a business that wants to sell something to you.

Nowadays, most young engineers are more interested in inventing the next Facebook than the next Unix. That’s a very different task. You’re building a product that appeals to your aunt or your cousin, not your programming buddy. Virality matters more than threading. The UI has to be appealing – and that doesn’t mean being able to set your command line prompt to include your username and the current directory.

Why the shift in focus? Maybe because much of the technology-related value being created today is not in improvements to the technology but in applications of the technology to how we interact with the world and with each other. This is a normal and healthy thing as the technology industry matures.

I am an old math geek who idolized among others Alan Turing and John Von Neumann, so I am excited to help 10gen revolutionize the database with MongoDB. But if I’m done with that in a decade or two, don’t be surprised if my next gig is more Facebook than Unix.

— Max

1 comment so far

  1. contentmangler on

    The basic truth is most young developers are the new prospectors and are forgetting the art of software development which is sad. Most new developers dont understand the foundations of languages and the underlying fundamentals that make things like “beautiful code” a great thing. Most software companies are full of hot young talent, that is all hoping to cash out early from some VC money. I must say I dont have a traditional background in software, so I treat it as an art form by studying those like Kernighan, Ritchie and yes the guys from PARC. I sit in these meetups in NYC and listen to young people get excited to be part of the next big thing, but rarely invest in building that thing. So the difference is like any art form, the sacrifice of art for the purposes of mainstream commercialization. That is the difference.

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