September 22, 2015

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

Why Tech Entrepreneurs Need To Be Programmers

I worry - I really do - about the trend for the X Factor-ization of software development that start-up culture has encouraged.

Especially troubling is how the media is now attempting to woo impressionable young people into the industry with promises of untold riches, often creating the impression that "no coding is required". No need for skillz: we can use the VC money to pay some code monkey to do all that trivial stuff like actually making ideas happen.

Far from empowering them to take their destinies into their own hands with "tech", this pushes them in the exact opposite direction. If you cannot write the code for your idea, you have to pay someone to do it for you, and that means you have to raise a lot of money just to get to the most basic working prototype.

This means that you will need to go far into the red just to figure out if your idea is feasible. And here's the thing about start-ups: you'll probably need to try many, many ideas before you find The OneTM. If trying one idea comes at such a high cost... well, you do the maths.

Whereas a young person - or an older person, let's not forget - with the right programming skillz, a cheap laptop and a half-decent Internet connection could do it themselves in their own time, as thousands upon thousands of software developers are doing right now.

What makes software so special is that the economic and social barriers to entry are so low. You don't need hundreds of thousands of pounds and special connections from that posh school you went to to start writing programs. Whereas, all the evidence suggests, you do need to be in a priveleged position to get funding to pay someone else to do it. Take a long hard look at our most successful tech entrepreneurs; not many kids from the wrong side of the tracks among that demographic.

Of course, programming is hard. It takes a long time to learn to do it well enough to realise even moderately ambitious ideas. Which is why such a small proportion of the people who try it end up doing it for a living. What makes software so special is that the personal and intellectual barriers to entry are so high. No wonder kids are relieved to hear you can be a tech rockstar without all that fiddly business of learning to play guitar.

But anyone with a programmable computer and Internet access can create applications and have them hosted for a few dollars on cloud services that - should they get lucky - can scale pretty effortlessly with demand. Anyone with a programmable computer can create applications that could end up listed on app stores and let computing giants take care of the retail side at any scale imaginable. It's not like selling widgets: a million orders for a new widget could put a small business in real cashflow trouble. A million sales of your iOS app needs neither extra manufacturing nor storage capacity. That's the beauty of digital.

The reality, though, is that the majority of software start-ups never reach such dizzying heights of commercial success. Which is why the vast majority of professional programmers work for someone else. And in my humble opinion, someone who learns how to make a good living writing point-of-sale systems for a supermaket is every bit as empowered as someone who's trying to get their POS-as-a-Service start-up off the ground.

And that's why I'm worried; for every successful tech entrepreneur, there are thousands more doing just fine thank you very much writing software for a living, and having as much fun and being as much fulfilled by it. By all means, reach for the stars, but let's not lose sight of the much wider set of opportunities young people might be missing if their gaze is 100% focused on The Big Shiny Success.

And even if you harbour such grand ambitions - and someone has to, at the end of the day - your odds of getting an idea off the ground can be massively improved if you can create that all-important working prototype yourself. Because, in software, a working prototype is the real thing. Making shit real is a very undervalued skill in tech.

Posted 2 years, 2 months ago on September 22, 2015