Developers Rule, OK?

I warmly recommend a new book by RedMonk co-founder Stephen O’Grady called The New Kingmakers, “about how developers took over the world”. If you’re a non-tech person who wants to understand what I do in my professional life, this will help. I’m not a software developer (nor even play one on television), but a lot of my job is about helping devs communicate about their work, and helping them work as a community to reach shared goals. If you work in tech, O’Grady’s view has profound implications for how you organize and manage your company, treat your tech employees, and market your products to technical people.

O’Grady posits that: “Developers are the most important constituency in technology. They have the power to make or break businesses, whether by their preferences, their passions, or their own products.”

The company that I work for, Joyent, is both a creator and a beneficiary of this new world order. We help supply the tools that enable developers to take over the world: open source software, which we make, and hardware, which we operate so efficiently that we can afford to rent it to other developers for very, very little – aka cloud computing. As O’Grady says, “With the creation of the cloud market, developers had, for the first time in history, access to both no-cost software and infrastructure affordable for even an individual.”

This means that a skilled software engineer with an idea (and maybe a few smart friends) and very little cash can launch a business to see what the world thinks of that idea, and – who knows? – may eventually build it into a world-spanning company. Twitter, for example, in its early days was hosted on Joyent.

O’Grady gives a quick history of “How did we get here?” – helpful for those who do not live and breathe tech every day – then supports his case with The Evidence.

In a subsection titled “What would a developer’s world look like?”, one answer he gives is that: “…open source [software] would grow and proliferate. Whether it’s because they enjoy the collaboration, abhor unnecessary duplication of effort, because they’re building a resume of code, because they find it easy to obtain, or because it costs them nothing, developers prefer open source over proprietary commercial alternatives in the majority of cases.”

Perhaps for brevity’s sake, he left out some reasons that the devs I know want to open source their work, such as:

  • They believe deeply in open source principles.
  • They are artists, and open source code is their gallery show, where their peers can see, admire and use their work – this goes well beyond resumé building.
  • Recognition is also a form of compensation. Like all of us, coders bask in the admiration of their peers, especially those peers who are skilled enough to truly understand the quality of their work. Having their best work locked away behind a proprietary wall makes this impossible, obviously.
  • Very pragmatically, they want their own best tools to be available for their own later use. As Bryan Cantrill has said about his “baby”, DTrace: “it was developed out of pain”, to solve problems that he (and many others) face every day in dealing with huge, complex systems. He would not want to work in a world without DTrace.

O’Grady’s recommendations for succeeding in this new world range from “Get to them early” to “talk with developers, not at them” – all good advice, including solid recommendations on how to market to developers (hint: traditional marketing tools fail completely, beer works).

You can get a copy of the book on Kindle. 50 pages.

photo caption: To do my job well, it helps me to be around devs all the time, which isn’t hard since I report to Joyent’s CTO, and sit among the engineers at our SF office – the spot of red in the photo above is my jacket on the back of my chair. SVP of Engineering Bryan Cantrill is the one with his feet on his desk, right foreground. (This was taken in the first few days in that office – Bryan’s desk has never since been that clean.)

The title of this piece, as so often happens with my writing, is a pun that may need explaining (and therefore may not be funny to anyone but me – oh, well).

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