Ripe for Disruption

Software engineers love to look at established industries, processes, and markets, and to apply technology leverage to wring out the inefficiencies, friction, and bloat. When they’re done, huge financial value is created, and people’s lives improve in real ways. Countless companies and fortunes have been built on this approach, from eBay and Amazon in the 90’s to Airbnb and Uber today.

Nowadays, it seems almost no human activity, no matter how small or inconsequential, has at least one or more startup companies, and a team of software engineers and web developers, scrambling to make it better. While some of these efforts will undoubtedly lead toward an amazing future for the human race, others … maybe not so much. Do we really need a better process for sending glitter bombs to your enemies? 

​As a guy who makes his living recruiting software engineers, maybe I shouldn’t be pointing this out, but I often feel like a prime industry candidate that’s ripe for creative disruption and destruction is … the US software industry itself.

Think about it. Building successful software that scales as users and load grow, that’s functional, beautiful, delivered on time and on budget requires having a great team of engineers. A really great team. We all recognize the existence of so-called “10x” developers (which, if you’re not aware, are the software developers who are at least ten times more productive than the typical engineer.) You’re not going to get equivalent productivity from ten so-so engineers. You need a team of uniquely-qualified people. I do most of my recruiting work for startups, and the unfortunate truth is that probably 50-75% of the “software engineers” that exist aren’t going to meet the rigorous standards of most startups. Most simply don’t have the technical depth, innate curiosity, stamina and creativity that a startup environment, or even a highly-successful larger company, tends to demand.

Building, and then retaining, such a team is very, very difficult. There’s way more demand for good software engineers than there is supply. Companies “acquhire” other companies solely to get the engineers. Talented software developers are creative hybrid mixtures: part engineer, part artist, as it were. Putting together a team of these rare people, getting them to work together successfully, and holding on to them  requires a huge amount of effort, money, and plain old black magic luck and timing. As a long-standing veteran of technology recruiting, I saw the perks offered to engineers back in the dot-com days. And, in my opinion, they’re not all that far removed from the craft beer taps, in-house gourmet chefs, and chair massages that companies offer these days to keep software engineers from straying to another employer. Recruiting them from other companies sometimes leads to mismatches of work style, culture, and expectations.

Of course, if your startup succeeds in becoming the next unicorn, or getting acquired, or maybe even — although rarer these days — going public, then all this investment is repaid many times over. But for many more companies, it’s more of a struggle.

There’s not an easy answer. Certainly creating more software engineers via more widespread computer science and programming education is a good step. However, this is only a small part of the issue. The uncommon combination of intellectual capabilities and personality traits that make someone a good programmer aren’t widely distributed through the general population. Even if broader educational opportunities become available — and they should — not everyone is cut out to be successful in this type of work. Admittedly great programs such as Hack Reactor, Launch Academy, General Assembly exist and definitely help, but they don’t always turn out the kinds of engineers who grok Computer Science fundamentals at the necessary level to build highly scaled and performant web applications.

In many ways, then, the development of software is an activity that’s full of inefficiency, friction, and bloat. Just the kind of industry that’s ready for disrupting. And right now, I guarantee there are people out there — hungry, motivated, very smart people — who’re looking to apply artificial intelligence, automation and other “technical levers” to reduce the necessity of having a software engineer create software, and thus reduce cost. Software and machine intelligence that creates new software.

The biggest disruption of all.

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