In a world powered by software, the developers who create that software — especially the really good ones — are increasingly the center of influence and power in business. That’s the core thesis of Stephen O’Grady’s brief-but-brilliant, 48-page book, The New Kingmakers: How Developers Conquered the World.
This is highly relevant to marketers and marketing technologists.
The genesis for Stephen’s book was the striking realization that as part of the democratization of technology in organizations — sometimes called the consumerization of IT — the CIO could be the last know which technologies were actually being used.
The most mainstream example, of course, are smartphones and the proliferation of bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trends — whether officially sanctioned or not. But such “shadow IT” has blossomed much further, with software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications that users adopt because they love them — not because they are mandated by IT. This is certainly the case with many popular marketing technology applications.
Stephen traces this revolution to the modern emancipation of software developers.
Not too long ago, software developers were beholden to the corporate hierarchy to perform their trade. Software was expensive. Hardware was expensive. Marketing and distribution of applications was expensive. So developers had to rely on sponsorship from executives with large purses. The balance of power was heavily weighted in the favor of those executives to decide what was going to be developed, on which platforms, and with which tools.
But four forces have converged to turn that model upside down:
1. Open source software. Thanks to the explosion of the open source movement, a large number of software platforms and tools — operating systems, programming languages, web servers, databases, application frameworks, advanced science and math libraries, etc. — are now free. Not only are they free, but their source code is freely available too. If developers don’t like how a particular open source program works, they can modify it — and contribute that modification back to the community. Effectively, they no longer need anyone’s sponsorship to use or deploy best-in-class software.
2. Cloud computing. The other half of the equation was hardware: those with the keys to expensive data centers still had control. But cloud-based platforms and infrastructures — Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the clear leader here — have made state-of-the-art hardware available, on-demand anywhere in the world, to anyone so cheaply that it might as well be free. “Anyone with a $10 bill can rent a 10-machine cluster with 1TB of distributed storage for 8 hours,” noted Flip Kromer, CTO of Infochimps. Heck, in some cases, it actually is free. Now for hardware and world-class Internet infrastructure, developers no longer needed deep-pocketed sponsorship either.
With free software and nearly-free hardware, developers were liberated from oppressive cost structures.
3. The connected economy. The Internet itself has broken down many of the remaining barriers to developers adopting and harnessing new platforms and tools. Blogs, online communities, Q&A sites like StackOverflow enables developers to connect with each other and to learn and share knowledge without expensive training or the constraints of traditional publishing. Shared code repositories like GitHub have made it cheap-or-free for developers to collaborate on projects around the world.
Even more powerful, however, has been the fact that the connected economy has provided a channel for developers to directly market software to users. Software-as-a-service is now accepted as the de facto delivery mechanism for applications — and it’s easy to scale cloud computing hardware as customer demand grows. Search marketing and social media marketing can be done on a shoestring budget, and a good product can gain an enormous boost through word-of-mouth. I’ve written before that engineers are becoming very good marketers in their own way.
4. Seed funding and crowd funding. Despite free or extremely low cost software, hardware, and marketing channels, developers who want to create a commercial application still have some other basic needs — food, water, shelter. Even though the economics of software development have been radically transformed, money is still needed to get a new venture off the ground. However, a new generation of investors have appeared to fulfill that need: seed stage investment funds, startup accelerators, angel investment groups, and crowd funding via services such as Kickstarter. (For a great crowd funding story, read how the Pebble watch project raised $4.7 million on Kickstarter.)
With these four forces, developers were suddenly in control of their own destiny.
At the same time, the world became digital — and software became the centerpiece of almost all business activities. See Marc Andreessen’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal: Why Software Is Eating The World.
In that world, software developers, the modern day mystics who can read and write code, have become the most valuable players in almost every venture. And with their newfound freedom, they’re in a position to be extremely choosey about who they work for and how they work. Happy and inspired software developers can transform a company’s fortunes. Disaffected software developers can abandon a company to irrelevance.
As the cover image on Stephen’s book suggests: software developers, who used to be pawns in the great game of business, are now the new kingmakers.
For marketers, it’s incredibly important to recognize this dynamic because:
- The products we’re marketing are increasingly built under this new power structure.
- The marketing technology applications we’re adopting are products of this dynamic.
- Understanding this helps us grok the revolution underway in the IT department.
- We’re trying to hire, harness, and retain our own marketing technologist developers.
- This is indicative of a broader shift to bottom-up power in modern organizations.
That last point connects to the growth of agile marketing. It’s no coincidence that agile methodologies in software development have increased in popularity in conjunction with the shift of power to developers. With more power at the bottom of the organizational pyramid than ever before, the real competitive advantage will go to companies that are able to adapt their management and culture to take advantage of this bottom-up wellspring of capability.