Q&A: New Kingmakers Author Discusses The Rise Of Developers

In The New Kingmakers: How Developers Conquered the World, author Stephen O’Grady chronicles the rise of developers and how they have become a defining force in technology. Developers now rule the world, O’Grady writes as he examines how developers became the most important constituency in business today.

We caught up with O’Grady to talk about The New Kingmakers, the rise of developers and the power of open source.

In your book, you call developers the “New Kingmakers,” can you expand on that idea and talk about how the industry has shifted to make it this way?
Sure. The basic idea is pretty simple: technology decision-making power within businesses is shifting towards developers at an accelerating rate. What used to be a top down decision making process, driven by CIOs and other senior level executives, is increasingly giving way to bottom up adoption. The most obvious example of this is probably the LAMP stack. None of Linux, Apache, MySQL or PHP achieved levels of near ubiquity initially because of CIOs or the analysts that advise them. Instead, developers advantaged them over proprietary, closed-source alternatives because, more often than not, they were easy to obtain and got the job done. Which meant that CIOs woke up one day to datacenters full of technology they hadn’t sanctioned, and that they didn’t have commercial support for; which is what gave rise to companies like Red Hat. The popularization of Linux forced CIOs to find the support they needed for the operating system their developers had chosen without permission from above.

You say in your book that the developer is now more important than the software – can you talk about that a little bit?
Years ago, software was in large part something that was given away. Back in the 1950s and 60s, for example, IBM used to make source for its mainframe operating systems available because the real money wasn’t in the software, but the hardware. Anything that helped sell hardware therefore, like free software, was a good thing.

But led in part by the rise of large commercial software businesses like Microsoft or Oracle, the market was conditioned to think of software not as a merely a means but an end in and of itself. Even as hardware makers struggled and were eclipsed in many cases by basic, commodity-led alternatives, software thrived and tremendous fortunes were made on software as a standalone asset.

An interesting thing was happening though: more and more companies were creating software, but then giving it away – just like the old days. Cassandra from Facebook or Hadoop from Yahoo are two of the better known examples of this. Some of the best software being written, in fact, was written by companies that didn’t sell software, but used software to power other businesses (e.g. Google). The net impact of this collective trend towards open source is that the commercial value of software is broadly in decline. To be clear, it’s absolutely possible to make money – good money – selling software. But it’s getting harder every day.

For the people who write software, however, life has never been better. Because software is eating the world, as Marc Andreessen famously said, those people who create it are in high demand.

What role does open source technology play in this shift to a developer-dominated world?
Open source has played a critical role in the empowerment of developers. While the cloud and other trends have contributed to the rise of the developer class, few things were more powerful than the availability of thousands of software projects which developers could leverage without reference to or permission from anyone.

What do developers look for in a project or company?
Many things, but the simplest is probably friction. How easy do you make it, in other words, for developers to use your project or product? Every little barrier you put in front of them – registration walls, for example – is an obstacle that some of them may decide not to bother with.

What advice do you give to enterprises looking to beef up their developer ranks?
Most obviously, invest in developer relations. How many companies of any size today operate without public relations capabilities? Vanishingly few. And yet while they’re comfortable with the costs of courting the opinion of media, many enterprises balk at the idea of providing the resources necessary to reach out to and engage with the developer populations most likely to determine their success from failure.

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