TITLE: "I Just Need a Programmer" AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 01, 2010 3:45 PM DESC: ----- BODY: As head of the Department of Computer Science at my university, I often receive e-mail and phone calls from people with The Next Great Idea. The phone calls can be quite entertaining! The caller is an eager entrepreneur, drunk on their idea to revolutionize the web, to replace Google, to top Facebook, or to change the face of business as we know it. Sometimes the caller is a person out in the community; other times the caller is a university student in our entrepreneurship program, often a business major. The young callers project an enthusiasm that is almost infectious. They want to change the world, and they want me to help them! They just need a programmer. Someone has to take their idea and turn it into PHP, SQL, HTML, CSS, Java, and Javascript. The entrepreneur knows just what he or she needs. Would I please find a CS major or two to join the project and do that? Most of these projects never find CS students to work on them. There are lots of reasons. Students are busy with classes and life. Most CS students have jobs they like. Those jobs pay hard cash, if not a lot of it, which is more attractive to most students than the promise of uncertain wealth in the future. The idea does not excite other people as much as the entrepreneur, who created the idea and is on fire with its possibilities. A few of the idea people who don't make connections with a CS student or other programmer contact me a second and third time, hoping to hear good news. The younger entrepreneurs can become disheartened. They seem to expect everyone to be as excited by their ideas as they are. (The optimism of youth!) I always hope they find someone to help them turn their ideas into reality. Doing that is exciting. It also can teach them a lot. Of course, it never occurs to them that they themselves could learn how to program. A while back, I tweeted something about receiving these calls. Andrei Savu responded with a pithy summary of the phenomenon I was seeing:
@wallingf it's sad that they see software developers as commodities. product = execution != original idea
As I wrote about at greater length in a recent entry, the value of a product comes from the combination of having an idea and executing the idea. Doing the former or having the ability to do the latter aren't worth much by themselves. You have to put the two together. Many "idea people" tend to think most or all of the value inheres to having the idea. Programmers are a commodity, pulled off the shelf to clean up the details. It's just a small matter of programming, right? On the other side, some programmers tend to think that most or all of the value inheres to executing the idea. But you can't execute what you don't have. That's what makes it possible for me and my buddy to sit around over General Tsao's chicken and commiserate about lost wealth. It's not really lost; we were never in its neighborhood. We were missing a vital ingredient. And there is no time machine or other mechanism for turning back the clock. I still wish that some of the idea people had learned how to program, or were willing to learn, so that they could implement their ideas. Then they, too, could know the superhuman strength of watching ideas become tangible. Learning to program used to be an inevitable consequence of using computers. Sadly, that's no longer true. The inevitable consequence of using computers these days seems to be interacting with people we may or may not know well and watching videos. Oh, and imagining that you have discovered The Next Great Thing, which will topple Google or Facebook. Occasionally, I have an urge to tell the entrepreneurs who call me that their ideas almost certainly won't change the world. But I don't, for at least two reasons. First, they didn't call to ask my opinion. Second, every once in a while a Microsoft or Google or Facebook comes along and does change the world. How am I to know which idea is that one in a gazillion that will? If my buddy and I could go back to 2000 and tell our younger and better-looking selves about Facebook, would those guys be foresightful enough to sit down and write it? I suspect not. How can we know which idea is that one that will change the world? Write the program, work hard to turn it into what people need and want, and cross our fingers. Writing the program is the ingredient the idea people are missing. They are doing the right thing to seek it out. I wonder what it would be like if more people could implement their own ideas. -----