Ravi Mohan's Blog
Saturday, July 29, 2006
But Martin, Enterprise Software IS Boring
Martin Fowler writes about Customer Affinity, a factor he believes distinguishes a good enterprise developer from a bad one. So far,so good. He says "I've often heard it said that enterprise software is boring, just shuffling data around, that people of talent will do "real" software that requires fancy algorithms, hardware hacks, or plenty of math." This is almost exactly what I say.(Just remove the quotes around "real" ;-) ). Martin goes on to disagree with this idea (which is fine) but then he says "I feel that this usually happens due to a lack of customer affinity." And this is where I disagree. People who work on things like compilers and hardware hacks and "tough" algorithmic problems can have customers, just as the enterprise folks do. I know I have. The compiler I am writing now has a customer. The massively parallel neural network classifier framework I wrote a couple of years ago had a customer. The telecom fraud detection classifier cluster I worked on last year (along with some other talented programmers) is being used by a company which is very business (and customer) oriented. So the idea that a "customer" (and thus customer affinity) is restricted only to those folks who write database backed web apps is simply not true. Math/algorithms/hardware hacks and the presence or absence of a "customer" (and thus, customer affinity) are orthogonal (you know, two axes at 90 degrees to each other) issues. With the customer issue out of the way, let us examine the core issue - the notion that talented developers would prefer to do stuff like compilers and algorithms instead of a business app (by which I mean something like automating the loan disbursal processes of a bank). The best way to get a sense of the truth is to examine the (desired) flow of people in both directions. I know dozens of people who are very very good at writing business software who yearn wistfully for a job doing "plumbing" like compilers and tcp/ip stacks, but I've never yet seen someone who is very very good at writing a compiler or operating system (and can make money doing so) desperately trying to get back to the world of banking software. A programmer might code enterprise apps for money, but at night, at home, he'll still hack on a compiler. It's kind of a "Berlin Wall" effect. In the days of the cold war, to cut through the propoganda of whether Communism was better than Capitalism , all you had to do was to observe in which direction people were trying to breach the Berlin Wall. Hundreds of people risked their lives to cross from the East to the West but practically no one went the other way. Of course this could just mean that the folks didn't appreciate the virtues of people's power and the harangues of the comissars but I somehow doubt it. To see whether living in India is better than living In Bangladesh (or whether living in the United States is better than living in India) look at who is trying to cross the barriers and in which direction. Economic Theory suggests another way of finding an answer. Suppose you were offered say 10,000$ a month for say 2 years, to develop the best business app you can imagine and say, 8000 $ a month, for the same two years to work on the best systems/research project you can imagine. Which one would you choose? Now invert the payment for each type of work. Change the amounts till you can't decide one way or another and your preference for either job is equal. Finding this point of indifference (actually it is an "indifference curve") will teach you about your preference for "enterprise over systems". I believe that while individuals will choose many possible points as their "points of indifference" on that curve, a majority of the most talented debvelopers would prefer a lower pay for a good systems/research project in preference to an enterprise project, no matter how interesting. And to most developers, an enterprise project becomes interesting to the degree it needs "tough programming" skills (massively scalable databases say.. there is a good reason Amazon and Google emphasize algorithms , maths and other "plumbing" skills in their interviews and an equally good reason why a Wipro or a TCS doesn't bother testing for these skills). The widespread (though not universal) preference of the very best software developers for "plumbing" over "enterprise" holds even inside Thoughtworks (where Martin works and where I once worked). I know dozens of Thoughtworkers who'd prefer to work in "core tech". While I was working for TW, the CEO,Roy Singham, periodically raised the idea of venturing into embedded and other non enterprise software and a large majority of developers (which invariably included most of the best devs) wanted this to happen. Sadly, this never actually came to pass. A good number of thoughtworkers do business software to put bread on the table, or while working towards being good enough to write "plumbing", but in their heart, they yearn to hack a kernel or program a robot. (Another group of people dream about starting their own web appp companies). For most of these folks tomorrow never quite arrives, but some of the most "businessy" developers in Thoughtworks dream of writing game engines one day or learning deep math vodoo or earning an MS or PhD. And good people have left TW for all these reasons. And if this is the situation at arguably the best enterprise app development company (at least in the "consultants" subspace) one can imagine the situation in "lesser" companies. The programmer who has the ability to develop business software and "plumbing" software and chooses to do business app development is so rare as to be almost non existent. Of course, most business app dev types are in no condition to even contemplate writing "hard stuff" but that is a topic for another day. Paul Graham (admittedly a biased source) says (emphasis mine), "It's pretty easy to say what kinds of problems are not interesting: those where instead of solving a few big, clear, problems, you have to solve a lot of nasty little ones....Another is when you have to customize something for an individual client's complex and ill-defined needs. To hackers these kinds of projects are the death of a thousand cuts. The distinguishing feature of nasty little problems is that you don't learn anything from them. Writing a compiler is interesting because it teaches you what a compiler is. But writing an interface to a buggy piece of software doesn't teach you anything, because the bugs are random.  So it's not just fastidiousness that makes good hackers avoid nasty little problems. It's more a question of self-preservation. Working on nasty little problems makes you stupid. Good hackers avoid it for the same reason models avoid cheeseburgers." Strangely enough, I heard Martin talk about the same concept (from a more positive view point, of course) when he last spoke in Bangalore. He explained how much of the complexity of business software is essentially arbitrary - how an arcane union regulation about paying overtime for one man going bear hunting on Thanksgiving can wreck the beauty of a software architecture. Martin said that this is what is fascinating about business software. But he and Paul essentially agree about business software being about arbitrariness. It is a strange sense of aesthetics that finds beauty in arbitrariness, but who am I to say it isn't valid? Modulo these ideas, I agree with a lot of what Martin says in his blog post. The most significant sentence is "The real intellectual challenge of business software is figuring out where what the real contribution of software can be to a business. You need both good technical and business knowledge to find that." This is so true it needs repeating. And I have said this before.To write good banking sofwtare, for e.g. you need a deep knowledge of banking AND (say) the j2ee stack. Unfortunately the "projects and consultants" part of business software development doesn't quite work this way. I will go out on a limb here and say that software consulting companies *in general* (with the rare honorable exception blah blah ) have "business analysts" who are not quite good enough to be managers in the enterprises they consult for and "developers" who are not quite good enough to be "hackers" (in the Paul Graham sense). Of course factoring in "outsourcing" makes the picture worse. By the time a typical business app project comes to India, most, if not all of the vital decisions have been made and the project moves offshore only to take advantage of low cost programmers, no matter what the company propoganda says about "worldwide talent", so at least in India this kind of "figuring out" is almost non existent and is replaced by an endless grind churning out jsp pages or database tables or whatever. It is hard to figure out the contribution of your software to people and businesses located half a world away, no matter how many "distributed agilists" or "offshore business analysts" you throw into the equation. This is true for non businessy software also,though to a much lesser degree. The kind of work outsourced to India is still the non essential "grind" type (though often way less boring than their "enterprise" equivalents). The core of Oracle's database software for .e.g. is not designed or implemented in India. Neither is the core of Yahoo's multiple software offerings - the maintenance is, development is not. And contary to what many Indians say, this is NOT about the "greedy white man's" exploiting the cheap brown skins. You need to do hard things and prove yourself before you are taken seriously. Otherwise people WILL see you as cheap drone workers. That's just the way of the world). And I say this as someone who is deeply interested in business. T'is not that I loved business less but I loved programming more :-).I'd rather read code than abusiness magazine but I prefer a business magazine to say, fashion news. I actually LIKE reading about new business models. I read every issue of The Harvard Business Review (thanks Mack) and have dozens of businessy books on my book shelf along with all the technical books. (I gave away all (300 + books) of my J2EE/dotNet/agile/enterpise dev type book collection , but that is a different story). I am working through books on finance and investing and logistics. I have friends who did their MBA in Corporate Strategy from Dartmouth or are studying in Harvard (or plan to do so). I have friends who work for McKinsey, and Bain and Co, and Booz and Allen, and Lehman Brothers. If I were 10 years younger (and thus had a few extra years to live), I'd probably do an MBA myself. And of course I have spent 10 years (too long, oh, too long) doing "enterprise" software. In my experience (which could turn out to be atypical),the "plumbing" software is way tougher and waaaaay more intellectually meaningful than enterprise software, even of the hardest kind. I might enjoy an MBA, but I will NEVER work in the outsourced business app development industry again even if I have to starve on the streets of Bangalore. I'll kill myself first. So, yeah I am prejudiced. :-). Take everything I say with appropriate dosages of salt. And just so I am clear, I do NOT think Martin is deliberately obfuscating issues. I think Martin is the rare individual who actually chooses enterprise software over systems software and is lucky enough to consistently find himself working with the best minds and in a position to figure out the business impact of the code he writes. This is very different from the position of the average "coding body", especially when he is selected more for being cheap than because he knows anything useful ("worldwide talent", remember :-) ). Btw, Martin's use of the word "plumbing" is not used in a derogatory sense (though I've seen some pseudo "hackers" take it that way, especially since the word makes a not-so-occasional appearnce in many of his speeches) but more in the sense of "infrastructure". If you are such a "hacker" offended by the use of the term, substitute "infrastructure" for "plumbing" in his article. That takes the blue collar imagery and sting out of that particular word, fwiw. I think Martin has very many valuable things to say. I just think he is slightly off base in this blog post and so I respectfully disagree with some of his conclusions. But then again, it could all be me being crazy. Maybe enterprise software is really as fascinating as systems software, and writing a banking or leasing or insurance app really as interesting as writing a compiler or operating system.(and Unicorns exist , and pigs can fly). Hmmmm. Maybe. Meanwhile I'm halfway under the wall and have to come up on the other side before dawn. Back to digging.