Out with the Old…

HBP Kickoff

I just got back from a crazy but inspiring 40 hr hackathon for college students in Boston (www.hackbeanpot.com) that my employer (Intuit) co-sponsored. After talking to most the teams over the course of the event, and seeing the output at the end, it’s clear that there are fewer and fewer barriers between ideas and some concrete manifestation of them. I say that because when I first heard about some of the project ideas, I thought most of them were unlikely to be viable, especially in the time allotted. I was wrong. The students had a willingness to use whatever tool they could, push through barriers, fatigue and lack of experience. Nothing seemed to trip up or demoralized them. Several teams hit project-ending barriers, and simply “pivoted” and kept going. I saw teams collaborating using GitHub, deploying ruby and python applications to Heroku and Google App Engine, integrating with social networks, getting working Android and iOS apps, some connecting to the back-ends they had deployed. I walked away wondering how could they pull this all off so quickly? In another 40 hrs most all of those projects would be commercially or academically viable. Some did go to market (Chrome Extensions). Some even had their own domains registered. The web apps all looked polished (thanks Bootstrap, D3), the mobile apps were crafted with design in mind, one even introduced some new visual paradigms.  My mouth is still agape.

It took me much longer to get my head around all the fancy new toys that were in use, months in fact. Collaborative source control? Cloud deployments by pushing to a git repo?. Whatever happened to building out your server, configuring commercial OS’s and routers, then finding a co-lo to host your stuff, and a wicked “fast” T1 line, then FTP’ing a bunch of stuff there to “deploy it”. These are now the ways of the caveman, equivalent to hitting rocks together to make fire. To this generation, the new tools and processes are simply the way things get done, there’s no nostalgia, no need to understand what’s under the hood. And that’s the way it should be, obviously. As we always dreamed, the hard stuff has been abstracted away, and we can focus on what we came to do – build something useful, something fun, something that serves a purpose. All this junk between us and our ideas is getting out of the way. This means that the next generation of developers has a completely different focus – they can stand on the shoulders of giants, and build. My generation got caught up so much in the “how” of building that we spent most of our time and energy there. In some cases this has been paralyzing, where (I am not kidding) years have been lost in the melee.

Putting this in contrast with the process, politics, vested interests and technical religion I see with my generation of developers, I realize it’s time we either join them or be made obsolete. We need to forget the battles of yore, of technology vs. technology, of what would be better if it was hugely successful and had to “scale”.  Pretty much everything you need is there, and it’s all doing the same thing. Choose what is productive for you and your team if you have one and move along.

It’s not just us seasoned folk who need to change, it’s the environment we created around our old-school processes. In many cases we adopted traditional corporate organizational structures (useful for banks, insurance companies, manufacturing even). Every software company that adopts this structure always finds itself stagnating, lacking innovation and engagement. It’s no surprise that the startups and “rogue” companies that adopt flatter, more team-driven structures do more, change the status quo and create engaged, innovative people.  The company I work for is moving in that direction which is both encouraging and necessary.

Beyond seeing all this inspiring development it warmed my heart to see that the gender ratio was quite balanced, with several of the winning teams “all girl”.  The future is bright for the tech sector, there’s talent, motivation, diversity and balance coming our way. My only fear for them is that they will be discouraged by what we have made of this industry in some cases. However, after seeing what I did this weekend, I reassure myself with the thought that they will create something better, something more naturally adapted to this new world. Old age and treachery can only hold back youth and talent for so long…

Out with the Old…

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