A Reflection on “Why Engineers Are An Endangered Species”

May 11, 2008

The presentation was a bit stale and rushed. The speaker, Todd Fast, acknowledged his presentation was too long for the time slot by speaking quickly through the slides with a forced barrage of opinionated facts. His humor broke up the repetition, but still I felt easily distracted because of the mono-toned speech. Simply put the presenter lectured his way through the time on an overly rehearsed argument. That said, his well described argument stayed with me even after I watched the new Speed Racer movie.

The conclusion Todd draws is software engineers will soon be replaced by the masses. The current trend of Facebook, OpenSocial, and other social platforms are making true development a commodity. His case example shows a teenager in his spare time developed a Facebook app/widget which was used by 250,000 people a day. A company spawned by this type of widget development is worth $500 million. The software programmers of today are genetic monstrosities of a dying breed. We develop applications that lack a 1/100th of the popularity being seen by Facebook. And, the social networking phenomenal is only beginning.

The talk gave no time for questions. To be quite honest, I am not sure anyone in the audience would have disputed his claims. The developers at JavaOne are in full support of the “new”. They spent lots of money to hear of how their jobs are changing. How can I become apart of the revolution?

Yet, all of this talk seems very familiar. If a widget is downloaded and used by 14+ million users, obviously they are on the road to riches and fame. Actually, no. Just like the previous web bubble, these applications lack any true business plan for revenue. If umpteen millions of people are using your product for free, then you don’t get paid anything (umpteen million * 0 = 0).

Of course fame has it value. Kevin Rose with Digg is making a living. But Revision3 is still waiting on the big payout. 37Things has a noble idea. Charge a fee for your product. Don’t rely on advertising to drive your business. If you build a worthy product, then you should charge for its usage. However, this old school of thought is in the minority these days. More and more online business focus on the sellout or how to make money once they have a million users. However, the truth is having a couple thousand of paying users can generate sufficient revenue to support giving the service away for free to the others. A point echoed in Chris Anderson’s recent article on the free market in Wired.

Yet, the presenter did bring up lasting thoughts. How will application development evolve? Where will social and semantic idealogy take us? Most importantly, when will a innovative business model for the web be revealed? Stay tuned.

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