At the San Francisco headquarters of application monitoring company New Relic on Tuesday, the founders of four successful tech companies explored the rising opportunities for developer-led startups before a handful of reporters.
In a discussion led by Google developer advocate Don Dodge, GitHub co-founder and CEO Tom Preston-Werner, Mixpanel co-founder and CEO Suhail Doshi, New Relic founder and CEO Lew Cirne, and Stripe co-founder and president John Collison took turns opining about why it's a great time to be a software developer.
The conclusion of the discussion was never in doubt: Attendees were offered commemorative coffee mugs emblazoned with the words, "The Developer Is King." There was no other option.
While the proliferation of online programming classes, programming boot camps and public initiatives to encourage students to learn how to program suggest that programmers are much in demand, the arguments in support of a developer coronation still deserve examination. Quite a few talented technical professionals in the U.S. see the expansion of the H-1B visa program as a way to replace developer-kings with more affordable indentured servants.
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But even amid the efforts of companies to attract and retain talent at the lowest possible cost, and the pushback by coders keen to improve their salaries, programming has undoubtedly become a more broadly applicable skill. Software touches so many more products now than it did a decade or two ago.
"Being a developer makes you feel like you have a superpower," explained Doshi, adding if you can think of something, you can build it.
It's a power augmented by the reach of the Internet. "If I learn how to write code, then I can create whatever I want and I can sell it to people with no overhead," said Preston-Werner. "Now that you have the Internet, you can create and distribute products at no cost. You'll need salespeople at some point ... but you can get started immediately. ... Writing code is how you can create something new in the world without having to have permission from anyone."
That's true until you're hit with a patent infringement lawsuit, a risk documented in a number of studies, in public discourse about the problems of patent trolls, and in claims brought against small developers by the likes of Lodsys and Treehouse Avatar Technologies.
Even so, the assembled group of founders argued persuasively that the barriers to creating software-based services are as low as they have ever been.
That doesn't mean developers have all the necessary skills to run a company. Cirne pointed to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's hiring of Sheryl Sandberg as an example of how technical founders need to bring in people with complementary strengths. "You can't just write code and make the company successful," he said.
These company leaders also shared skepticism about the need to cater specifically to enterprise customers.
"If you're selling enterprise software, you're not selling to the user, you're selling to a decision maker," said Collison, adding later, "Not all companies want to get into selling to enterprises."
To Collison, companies that accommodate traditional enterprise buying cycles have a harder time improving their products as fast as modern Web companies. He also observed that the traditional enterprise procurement model is changing. All the companies represented at the roundtable, he said, had Fortune 500 clients, but none of them acquired those customers through traditional means, which Cirne described as "six onsite visits with steak dinners."
Cirne said New Relic had two customers paying over a million dollars a year and many more paying six-figure sums, all without a traditional enterprise sales force. These customers, he said, "started at $400 per month and we delivered value."
Welcome to the age of "shadow IT," where small groups in big organizations route around enterprise barriers to buy modern Web services.
Doshi added, that until last year, 90% of Mixpanel's customers were self-service customers who signed up with a credit card. He predicted that over time enterprises will inevitably implement a software-as-a-service (SaaS) policy that empowers corporate groups to sign up with credit cards rather than the more bureaucratic enterprise procurement model.
In short, the panelists suggested, developer-driven startups needn't focus on the enterprise market. If you make a product that's good enough, you'll get enterprise customers without the extra overhead.
To Doshi, rejecting the traditional approach to enterprise business is a point of differentiation. "Our biggest competitor, Omniture, makes a business of charging its customers to learn how to use its product," he said. "Our approach is the opposite."
For those looking to try on the developer crown, Preston-Werner advises focusing on open-source technology. "I think open source is one of the greatest things that happened to the world in general," he said, comparing it to free timber or electricity for a construction project. "You don't have to start from scratch every time."
If you have the skills but lack ideas for a killer product, Preston-Werner advises keeping a journal. "Write down everything that's a pain in the ass," he said.
Cirne urges just solving a problem and not getting hung up on market size.
Just make sure you choose the right tools for the task.
"Tools definitely matter and they matter in a way that's silent," said Collison. If your company is suffering because of the tools it chose, whether that means the wrong programming language or the wrong kind of database, your website may not meet a catastrophic end, but it is likely to accrue technical debt that slowly strangles your business. "Tools tend to really fail people in a way that's really hard to see," he said.
Developers can be kings (or queens), but heavy is the head that wears the crown.