I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail. – Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being
How many software programmers are there in the world today?
In 2019 – maybe around 26 million or so.
A post – I think on LinkedIn – suggested that was a small number.
It’s a small group of people that build and control a lot of the stuff that we depend on these days.
But all that stuff must be making our lives better, right?
One of the things you see is that people spend a lot of time solving the same problems again and again.
And that’s because there are lots of simple problems that need solving whenever you try and do something.
Take building an extension, for example.
You’ll need to manage a contact database, make calls, keep notes, follow up, put a project plan together, follow that plan, fill out paperwork, comply with health and safety rules and a whole lot of other things.
The chances are many people will manage with paper and notes.
Some will use a spreadsheet.
A few will use project management software.
There is an inverse relationship between complexity and the number of users here.
The more complex the tool the more complex the job has to be to justify learning and using it.
Now, one of the things about complexity is that it’s often a substitute for control.
Take Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Software, for example.
The standard reason for using a CRM is so you can keep better records of what you’re doing with customers and so serve them better.
The real reason you use a CRM is so you can keep an eye on what your employees are doing.
Or maybe that’s unfair.
You’re just tired of information being all over the place and a CRM looks like a way to bring everything into one place and manage it well.
How has that worked out for you?
If you’re the go-getting sales manager who believes in the power of CRM systems you’ll probably say it works great.
The chances are, however, it’s working because of you and your interest and sheer will power in getting everyone else to do things your way.
Left alone, things degenerate.
It’s the law of entropy.
If you didn’t check the CRM every day then pretty soon people start putting less in and it slowly goes out of date.
You’re probably wondering what the title of the post has to do with anything I’ve written so far.
Patience. It may make happen.
No promises, though.
There’s another line – I think from Clay Shirky – but I’m struggling to get the reference that says people who make encyclopedias have always known that trying to put structure around information is a thankless job.
The minute you try and create a form or a rule or a framework to hold information stuff starts to leak and get messy and not fit properly.
What you can do is make it easy to get information out and try to keep people honest with what information they put in.
So, the point is that software is not easy to use to make your business better.
And that’s because of this relationship between how hard the task is, how complex the software needs to be and how much control you want.
So that brings us to service businesses.
All businesses, some people say, are now service businesses.
I’m not sure how true that is.
There’s often a product hidden somewhere. As they say about social media, the reason that product is free is because the real product is not the software platform but you.
You’re the product and the thing they’re selling to others.
Service businesses, on the other hand, rely on people doing something.
Eric S. Raymond, an open source advocate, says that service firms can’t be made bigger by investing capital.
What happens is that money pays for people and stuff and makes fixed costs go up – and then they run out of money.
He says three models work:
- Singing for your supper: tip money
- A corner shop: stay small and keep overheads low
- A wealthy patron: find someone to support you
Raymond’s argument is that people won’t fund software startups because as service businesses they won’t scale.
He predicts you’ll end up with better off workers but fewer businesses owned by investors who take most of the money.
So… people with more money but fewer super rich folks.
That doesn’t seem to be putting people off.
People are funding software businesses.
And some are going on to become very large.
Of course, many more fail.
The thing is these days we are offered a very large selection of hammers.
There are lots of tools that help us do simple things well.
Some help us do things we want but, like Apple, demand our freedom in exchange.
You want an Apple product – you need to sign up to their ecosystem which is increasingly dictatorial – it seems.
You’ll need more than hammers in your toolbox to solve complex problems.
And those tools – it sometimes seems – are hidden in plain sight.
Tools that can help us solve complex business problems – but they are hard to learn and the people that learn them don’t always work in businesses.
So, until they get their act together, much of our time is still going to be spent wishing we weren’t wasting time in the ways we do now.