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Is Application Development a Fool’s Game? March 9, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development.
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So says Fortune magazine, although it is specifically referring to the ongoing battle between platform providers and those who develop for those platforms.  I’ll say more about that in another post.  But there is a larger issue surrounding developers, which I’ll describe here.

In the mid 1980s, as I pondered the pursuit of a career in computers and software, there seemed to be only one path to take – software development.  That was what technical professionals did during the infancy of the PC revolution, and that’s what schools trained students for.

Networking?  Networks barely existed at the time.  Ethernet and TCP/IP had been invented a decade or more earlier, but were used to connect larger computers and were typically used behind the scenes.

Systems management?  There weren’t courses for that, due in part to the variety of different types of largely proprietary systems that were prevalent at that time.  You became a systems manager by working at one of the proprietary computer vendors, or working your way up from the ground floor in an enterprise.  And the jobs weren’t terribly common.

But it didn’t matter.  All of the best students wanted to sling code.  So I pursued graduate work in computer science for several years, while writing code first as a professional and then as an academic.  I was never more than an average programmer, but as I became more polished as a communicator I moved into technical evangelism and product management, but still in software development.

Somehow over time the image of developers changed.  I first noticed it as a product manager, where development tools at any price were a difficult sell into enterprises.  While some of that failure needed to be placed at the feet of the sales force, it was at least indicative of an interesting shift in priorities by enterprise IT management.

In many cases, development teams worked with open source tools, or the base tools needed to write and produce applications.  In fact, by far the most popular Java development environment is the free Eclipse IDE, which essentially killed off the market for commercial equivalents.  In contrast, tools on the IT production side of the house were plentiful.  These tools often had price tags in the six figures.

My observations continued during one of my stints in publishing, when the bulk of my efforts went into testing and reviewing tools to manage systems and applications in production, which were plentiful and expensive.  Developer tools vendors seemingly struggled.

In hindsight, this is an understandable, albeit regrettable state of affairs.  It is due entirely to the success we’ve had over the years in making systems and software essential to doing business of any type.  Once your organization is dependent upon computers and software for its day to day business, spending on tools and services to ensure uptime and performance is a no-brainer.

In contrast, actually developing those applications gets a lower priority.  It’s not because development isn’t important, but rather because it lacks the urgency you feel when your e-commerce site is down and you can count the money that you’re losing because of it.  You’re going to spend your money where you make money, and since developers are the best anyway, they can do a good job with what they have.

That doesn’t bring to mind a rendition of “Mama, don’t let your child grow up to be a coder.”  Programming still pays well, and there is satisfaction in creating new applications, but don’t count on getting the best of everything.

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1. Writing Better Code Doesn’t Get You to Perfection « Cutting Edge Computing - March 25, 2010

[…] commercial development tools is a very difficult business today, as I’ve alluded in a recent post.  These tools include debuggers and more general-purpose error detectors, performance analyzers, […]


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