What are coders worth?

HTML CodeYou know something has nailed the zeitgeist when 2 different people send you a link to it, and James Somers really attracted some attention with his article: Are coders worth it?

The article is a distillation of Somers’ experience in the web development industry. From the UK perspective he makes the development job market in the US seem very appealing; signing bonus? Perks? Freedom? Respect? Somers’ remarkable – and wonderfully written – article does highlight issues around the perceived value of a development team.

There seems to me to be a difference between what something – or someone – costs, as opposed to the value that is derived from it. I may own a car that could achieve 45 MPG, but it will only ever achieve that value if I drive it in such a way. And if I’ve paid the cost of a car that can achieve 45 MPG, but through my own driving techniques I only get, say, 38 MPG, then I’ve failed to maximise the value that car could have brought.

Relating developers to cars might be a funny analogy to make, but the value to be had from developers is not entirely unrelated to how those developers are put to work. If developers are set to work on a project that would never have delivered value, that is not a general indication that those developers are worthless.

In that light, Somers’ makes claims deserve to be explored outside the confines of a purely investment-led looking-for-a-quick-ROI-with-exit-strategy.

“Most of what we’re doing is putting boxes on a page”

On the face of it, developers do spend a lot of time putting stuff in boxes. I can see where Somers is coming from and the point he is making.

As a developer Somers is paid to cram his head with the minutiae of magical coding constructs that enables him to shift text and images across the world, from a database in the cloud all the way into a box in a web browser being blasted into the retina of a teenager gawking at Rhianna’s latest escapades.

Whilst this is true for web sites oriented towards public use, I’m sure that if Somers had experience of developing web-based business applications, such as an insurance aggregation site, risk management systems, systems designed to manage billions of pounds worth of intellectual property, or a KPI dashboard for a group of hospitals, he’d probably concede that there is a huge amount of work around getting the workflow and process right to support – or even change – how a business does business.

Web based business applications still dredge databases to put text and images into boxes on a web page, but the business rules and workflows applied to that data are often complex and deeply fascinating.

A decent business system can mean a huge difference to how individuals, and ultimately organisations, perform. The speed and quality of web-based business systems can mean the difference not just between profit and loss, but literally between life and death. And when you think in those terms, it becomes less easy to trivialise the work of web development teams.

“Cheap, fun, and about as world changing as creating a new variation on beer pong”

Developers can and will spot business model flaws from 100 paces. They don’t always know this from experience, but because they know some other company tried this or that thing and it didn’t work.

But sometimes a management team commissions a project for something beyond financial reasons. A business project does not have to change the world to be successful. Making an incremental change to an existing system and gaining more experience and knowledge through a particular project may well be a stepping stone to something bigger later on.

As a developer I once worked as part of a start-up business that had some great backing, a great team, a great business plan, but which ultimately failed to stand on it’s own two feet.

Years later it was a pleasant surprise to discover that, a disproportionately large number of the people who worked with me in that business had gone on to found their own web-related companies.

This, I thought, was no coincidence.

We hadn’t changed the world, but we’d gone through a shared set of experiences that changed our own perceptions of the world. Working through the Dot-com bubblewe saw at first hand that it was possible to raise huge sums of money, bring a talented team together, produce good work, and still fail as a business.

Business, like life, and the stock market, is not always a continuous upward curve. There are ups and downs, Once you have lived and learned through that up/down experience, changing the world becomes just as much about changing yourself and the way you work, along with the way your organisation works.

“If you’re not technical, you’re not valuable”

Somers is self-admittedly coming from a narrow technical perspective here. When we look at a business overall, it’s not technical skills that are particularly scarce.

I think we only need look at one example to disprove the theory that pure, unadulterated and laser-focused technical talent is king. And that example is Steve Jobs.

Famous for dropping out of formal education, taking drugs, and being as concerned about the creative process as the technical possibilities, Jobs helped to build not just one, but  at least 2, and arguably 3 successful companies each based around different technologies and creative processes.

Jobs was a master at placing people around him who could sustain his vision. It’s no secret that Steve Wosniak was the technical genius behind Apple’s early success. AtNeXT Jobs was supported Avi Tevanian.

Knowing the value of creativity, Jobs also had a successful partnership at Pixar withJohn Lasseter, and most famously at Apple with Jonathan Ive. Imagine that. A major hardware and software company drawing  inspiration from a creative, rather than a technical expert?

It’s possible not to be overly technically focused and yet to produce world changing products. The value of Steve Jobs – and I’ll concede that his is a rare case – was far beyond his knowledge of circuit boards and hard drives. It was the vision and leadership that Steve Jobs had, and the vision he inspired in others, that was the key to his success, and the success of the companies he ran.

“I could put the whole of my energy and talent into an article, everything I think and am, and still it could be worth zero dollars”

I can really empathise with Somers on this one. When I put my heart and soul into some documentation, or a white paper, or whatever, and the response is more of a ‘Meh’ than a ‘Whoa, you really thought about this!’ then it can be dispiriting.

But actually, what I’m doing at work is distilling,  compiling, analysing and helping to adjudicate over the ideas that are already out there in a business. I provide roadmaps for business change and the technical implementation of that change.

There is room for creativity in that I could – and often do – suggest new, more efficient ways of working, and that’s the value that I can add as a Business Analyst. A developer does get those opportunities, but by the time discussion reaches the developer, some core principles have likely already been laid down.

I take a lot of inspiration from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a great book that’s commercially successful to boot, but the story behind it’s publication is an illustration of how different people assign different values to the same thing.

Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected by 121 publishers. It was only at the 122nd time of asking did it’s author get the support and recognition he was looking for. Somers would prefer to be paid for writing articles than code. But just because he isn’t succeeding in his dream job right now, that doesn’t mean he won’t succeed in the future.

The final (business) analysis

So given all of this, what are coders worth? Even though I have a few issues with his reasoning, it’s hard for me not to agree with Somers; he knows he’s giving people what they want because he’s getting paid handsomely to do it.

A newly minted venture – which seems to be the type of companies that Somers is discussing in his article – has different priorities from a mature business. It may need to offer better than average salaries and perks to attract the right talent to an unproven venture. In some cases it needs to get to market fast and iterate quickly. The coders in these businesses are laying the organisational equivalent of a new nervous system using tools of their own choosing, for Somers this is Ruby on Rails.

A mature business, though, has already proven it’s stability. It may attract talent by pure brand draw, and can demonstrate a track record of products or services. It already has a nervous system in place, one that could be sprawling and sophisticated, and which uses a range of tools and frameworks that collectively are beyond the ken of a single coding guru.

Maybe coders are worth whatever organisations are willing to pay them. But the value derived from coders is as much based upon the organisation itself as the amount of awesome the coder is capable of delivering.

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