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.
[ IT professionals have strong opinions about the privacy vs. security balance. Read NSA Surveillance: IT Pro Survey Says What?. ]
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."