Quora releasing an API, would literally allow us to plug the whole of Africa into Quora

Quora do not currently have an API (Application Programming Interface) available for third party applications to integrate into Quora i.e. posting questions and getting answers through an API. So it got me thinking in terms of “what if” it did?

Most people in Africa do not have access to the internet via a smartphone or computer. This limits their access to information thereby restricting their growth and inhibiting their efforts at day-to-day problem solving.

If Quora had an API, we could develop a system allowing people with access to only a cell phone to be able to post questions to Quora by sending an SMS. The system would thereafter poll Quora for answers and relay the answers back to the person asking the question via the SMS. So this would give all those people in Africa access to a worldwide network of experts on Quora simply through an SMS. Quora releasing an API, would literally allow us to plug the whole of Africa into Quora.

I’ve already developed an SMS gateway for two way communication between the website and a person sending/receiving an SMS. Extending the functionality to integrate with Quora would be relatively simply. Getting funding for a project like that would be quite the endeavour.

Not all software companies are in the software business

Many people have the misconception that a software business is purely about developing software i.e. that as long as code is being written that is valuable to someone else, then money can be made. This may be partly true, but it is a very narrow sort of view on what it takes to generate revenues.

The question of “what are we selling and when should we request payment?” determines the type of software business you are working for and/or managing. There are three main types of software businesses:

  1. Software as a means to an end: there are many businesses that dedicate the majority of their resources (money, people, time) to developing software but they do not directly generate money from the the software itself. Instead the software they develop is nothing more than a means to an end to support and/or automate their primary business, which may be anything from marketing/advertising, to selling physical products or perhaps managing logistics. The quality of the software produced by these companies has less impact on their profits than the primary service/products that they provide. Here’s a few examples of large corporations already doing this:
    1. Google may for example develop software as part of their business strategy, but they are primarily just an advertising agency and they just happened to have found a way to reach a wider audience by developing a search engine. More recently they have started making money on Google Apps but it pales in comparison to their revenues on advertising through their search engine. They have indeed developed Android, the most successful mobile OS (Operating System) in the world, but as far I know they make a minimal amount of profit on it, while Microsoft gain the majority of the profits which Google have to pay out to them for royalties. Customers that advertise on Google care less about the features Google provides than the ROI (Return On Investment) they get from advertising on their search engine. On the flip side, the people using the Google search engine do care about the quality of the search results, but those people are not paying to use the software.
    2. Facebook too is nothing more than an advertising agency that have just happened to find a different way of reaching a wider world wide audience. They do this by attracting people to a social networking website, keeping them engaged and gathering information about their interests (likes). Once again, the paying customers don’t care so much about the features available on the software, as long as their advertisements are reaching the target audience. Facebook is not exactly in the business of developing software as it is in the business of connecting people and feeding them targeted advertisements.
    3. Amazon for the most part is nothing more than a shop/store that happens to be online and they have thereby managed to automate the process of selling products to a wider world wide market. Only as of more recently have they started selling software products and services such as AWS (Amazon Web Services), but this is not their core business. Again, the features provided by the Amazon website have little to do with their customer satisfaction; their customers care about the products available on the website and how quickly those products can be delivered to them. Therefore Amazon is not so much  in the business of selling software as it is in the business of selling and delivering physical products.
    4. Uber is simply a company that acts as a middleman managing taxis. They may as well be a personal assistant that helps you coordinate the travelling via a taxi: contacting the taxi driver, telling you where to meet, keeping track of distances travelled and of course keeping track of the costs. They just happened to find a way of automating this whole administration head ache by developing software. The customers using Uber once again don’t care so much about the features on the software, as long as they get a taxi to take from the A to B at an affordable price.
    5. Apple: is in fact a hardware company that just happens to have developed their own operating systems and developer tools as a strategic way of improving and controlling the performance of their hardware and keeping their users within their ecosystem. The same applies to every other OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer): they may have internal software engineers, but they are not on the frontline of what keeps the company going.
  2. Software Consulting: a consulting business charges for services rendered, meaning that you’re not selling software but rather your time, skills and effort. The consulting business is very much like prostitution: a salesperson (pimp) sells the services of software developers (prostitutes) to customers and theses services are billed by the hour. A software consulting business is not purely in the business of developing software, but rather in the business of providing services and adding value to customers.
  3. Product Development: traditionally software was regarded as any other engineering endeavour: we create a product, we sell as many units of it as we possibly can and make lots of money. Microsoft is a great example and the original company to have implemented this strategy.  These kinds of companies are the only companies that exist purely for the purpose of developing software. The challenge these companies have is that they will not be making any money until the first product is finished and ready to be shipped off. Therefore it requires massive funding and involves great amount of risk. With this approach, customers are purchasing the software products for no other reason than for the software itself and the features it provides. Therefore in order for such a company to survive it needs to provide finished software products that are of the highest quality and offer the largest amount of features.

The moral of the story is that the activities of a company do not always have a direct impact on the bottom line, and thus do not necessarily dictate the the kind of business that a company is in i.e. employees can be spending 90% of their time developing an advertising platform, but if the money is made from selling advertisements, then the company is not in the business of writing software, but in the business of selling advertisements.

Will desktop/native apps eventually die off and be replaced by web applications?

To assume that one day all apps will be web apps, is to assume that anything worthwhile doing on your device has to be online. There are plenty of apps out there that don’t need a network connection. Why would anyone pay for a network connection and be reliant on it, just so that they can use a calculator app?
To assume that one day all apps will be web apps, is to assume that ALL consumers across the world will never want to own and control the apps they’re using i.e. using web apps implies being constantly dependent on someone in the cloud keeping servers up and running, and renting the apps you’re using. Most people prefer owning the products/objects they use e.g. houses, cars, bicycles, clothes etc. Can you imagine a world where you don’t own anything but instead rent everything?

As a software developer myself, I feel that a lot of the offered “solutions” and trends set out by tech companies lack empathy for the consumers/users e.g. just because a web application is easier for a tech company to deploy and maintain, it doesn’t mean that it offers the best user experience.

How do you become an indispensable programmer?

As a programmer, your work will mostly be split up between either maintenance and feature development. It is up to you to decide which of the two you prefer to spend more time on. If you write bad code, you will end up spending the majority of your time doing bug fixing. If you write good code, you will spend the majority of your time developing new features … and no, you will not run out of features to develop because there will always be room for improvement and it is human nature for people to always strive for bigger and better and more efficient. People who write bad code, are forever stuck doing maintenance and support and never move on to bigger and better features and opportunities. So people who write bad code are doing themeselves a disservice in the long term.

As for becoming indispensable; in my experience it’s impossible to be 100% indispensable, but there are things you can do to become more needed and being needed is not binary (needed or not), but rather something on a scale e.g. needed from 1 – 10. Replacing a programmer/employee always has a cost associated with it in terms of recruitment costs as well as knowledge transfer costs (time and material spent learning the existing code base and technology) . With that said, it all comes down to money for the employer/customer, who will ask themeselves “what is easier, replacing the programmer or carrying on paying him/her”? The answer to that question will determine how needed you are.

Becoming needed is only one aspect, while becoming useful is another. In many ways, striving to become needed will make you less useful and vice versa. For example, the easiest way to become more needed is to become more specialized. The problem with specialising though is that you have less to fall back on if the technology you’ve specialised in becomes irrelevant.

Become needed: specialize by setting yourself apart from the rest.

  • Stay away from mainstream technologies and companies: the more popular a technology is the more programmers/experts there are in the market for that specific technology. This obviously means that you will have more competiton. More competiton means greater supply in the market, which means lower prices/salaries for those programmers. When there are 1000 programmers like you lining up at the employer’s door, it becomes easy to replace you.
  • Focus on either leading edge or trailing edge technologies for the same reasons as above i.e. there are few that dig into and risk learning a leading edge technology. The same applies to legacy technologies where there is a shortage of skilled people. Nobody wants to learn legacy technologies because it’s not cool. Don’t try to be cool, instead try to be needed.
  • Find a niche market/product: there may be mainstream development stacks/technologies being implemented in niche markets/products, but there will always be small details that are learnt only through experience in that specific market. New comers will therefore have a tougher time getting up to speed.
  • Learn proprietary technologies: in other words learn technologies that other people cannot learn by simply browsing the internet or picking up a book at the local book store. These are technologies that can only be learnt from your company sending you on those courses etc. Once again this will set you apart from the rest.
  • N.B. with all of the above said, keep in mind that there is a tradeoff to specializing. The more you specialize the more needed you are, but the less usefull you become i.e. you may know a technology better than anyone else in the country, but if you can’t do anything else you are not that usefull.

Become useful: generalize by being able to do as many different jobs as possible. See the big picture by understanding the big picture as well as the details: most people focus on either the details (lines of code) or the design/strategy. You don’t have to be an expert at everything, but the wider you spread your view the better.

  • Business Logic: Even more importantly, understand the business rules of the software you’re developing. Any programmer with equivalent technical skills as you can take over your code immediately. However, learning the business rules of the software takes a huge amount of time and if there is limited documentation it makes it almost impossible for someone else to take over an intricate software product.
  • Design: Learn the design of the software, in terms of how all the components fit together to make up the entire system i.e. the web application, database, clients, services etc. As with the above point, anybody can come in and undertand a specific function in your code, but understanding the overall design of the software is incredibly difficult if there is limited documentation or limited knowledge transfer.
  • Sales: Learn and get involved in the sales/business aspect of your company, in terms of what it takes to sell the product and what the customers are looking for. Once again any other programmer can come in and take over some code, but being part of the sales cycle makes your more needed as well as more useful.

What is the difference between the different roles in software development e.g. Programmer, Developer/Consultant, Engineer & Architect?

In order to not get bogged down in technical aspects of the software industry I’ll use an analogy: to keep it simple, let’s compare the software creation process to that of creating a dining room table and the people required to design and build it:

Programmer: this is a basically the apprentice in many ways, the person who knows how to varnish wood, drill holes, use a measuring tape and even a Vernier caliper. However someone needs to provide guidance to him on how to build a table. A supervisor needs to tell him the length of the wood to cut, what screws to use and where to drill into the wood. At the end of the day he will have been able to create a table with his own two hands, but he is not able to do this without guidance and supervision. In the software world this is the guy that knows one or more programming languages and can apply them to write a function or a class but he cannot envision and create an entire application from beginning to end without supervision. Given enough time and hard work he will progress to becoming a Software Developer/Engineer/Architect.

Software Developer/Consultant: suppose you want to have a custom dining room table built for your home. As a non-technical person you have an idea of what you’d like the finished table to look like but you don’t know how to build it yourself. So you go out and find someone who can build a custom table from scratch according to your specific requirements i.e. you tell the guy more or less how big your room is and the length of the table, the number of chairs you’d like to make space for etc. The Software Developer is the person that can build a custom application according to a customer’s requirements. Due to him being in charge of the development of the software, he does have some creative freedom but ultimately he needs to make the customer happy by following a specific customer’s requirements.

Software Engineer: now suppose that you’re the owner of a company that designs and manufactures furniture. This is a completely different ball game now because you’re no longer trying to satisfy a single customer’s needs but rather and entire market in your entire country perhaps. So instead of getting a single table designed and built you’re looking at getting thousands of tables built. To get the job done you will need a person with a whole new set of skills that go beyond the Software Developer’s abilities. Software Engineering principles need to be applied to the problem. These include design patterns and principles. The Software Engineer has a broader view thinking further ahead asking questions regarding scaling and re-usability. When creating thousands of tables one needs to think about creating an attractive product that will not just please one customer, but that many will love. This person also thinks about which materials are cost effective and the durability. It’s all good and well to create one table, but this person also thinks about how to duplicate the design over and over at ease so that each copy looks exactly the same as the next one and is of the same quality. The Software Engineer is the person that designs and develops software that will be sold to not only one person but many.

On the surface the Software Developer may seem very similar to a Software Engineer, but in my opinion of the main differences between the two is their personalities or the circumstances which are imposed on them i.e. it’s not so much about technical abilities. The Software Developer is typically a shortcut kind or person that looks for quick fixes and accrues a lot of technical dept. This is in part due to the rigid time and budget constraints that Software Developers work under because they bill by the hour. Moreover, when you’re developing a product and billing by the hour, that product will only be as good as it needs to be i.e. “do we really need this feature, how much is it going to cost, can we find a quick workaround for that problem by not spending more time and money etc.”.

Lastly, a Software Developer typically works on multiple projects at the same time, meaning that their focus is scattered and their priorities change from day to day. A lack of focus and prioritization results in lower quality products being developed. A Software Engineer on the other hand typically works on a single project at a time and gets allocated a larger budget without having to clock hours. A larger budget also allows for more time to focus in strategy and design of the product instead of just working without thinking i.e. running around like headless chickens.

Software Architect: continuing with our analogy, the furniture company will not only have a single dining room as a product, but many different types of products. This requires a technical person to oversee the design and creation of every single product which brings about a whole extra set of challenges. This person needs to think about reusability e.g. can we use the design of table A when we’re working on table B by perhaps tweaking it a bit? This person may also be responsible for thinking about overall costs e.g. or which wood suppliers should we use to create the best/cheapest products etc. The Software Architect is the person that thinks about all the products that are being engineered and asks themselves how these products fit into the big picture of the company. In very large companies that have very large products a Software Architect may be assigned to oversee only a single product and engineers could be assigned to components of the large products.

To summarize; the difference between all these people is the scope of their view and responsibilities in the process of designing and developing of software. Of course there are many other titles (especially managerial ones) in this industry but I chose to focus only on the very technical ones.

How do I know if I like my career as a software developer/engineer?

From time to time you may question whether getting into a software career was the right thing to do and whether or not you still enjoy it. It is normal to feel like that at least once in your career, perhaps you will feel like that several times throughout your career. If you’re at the beginning of your career it’s even more normal to feel like. One of the following reasons could be the causes for the way you feel:

  1. Preoccupied: if you’re not completely focused on your work you will never be passionate about it and therefore will not like what you do. It could be:
    1. Other problems in your personal life completely unrelated to your career. Identify what these problems are, get them resolved and push them out of your way. Once you’ve cleared your mind, see if you then feel differently about software engineering and your career.
    2. Other interests/hobbies that are distracting you and pulling you in a different direction. Ask yourself if those other interests are worth it. Can you make a living out of those other interests? Be honest with yourself whether you can balance both your hobbies and your career. If you can’t, then drop your hobbies, get them out your way, focus on your career and then see if you feel differently.
  2. Not being good at what you do: a person only starts enjoying what they do when they’re good at it. If you’re not particularly good at what you do then you won’t be passionate about it. There could be a few reasons of that:
    1. Beginning of your career: obviously if you’re at the beginning of your career you’re probably not going to be good at what you do (relative to your co-workers) and therefore not enjoy your work. In a case like this you need to stop comparing yourself to others that know more than you and start comparing yourself to yourself i.e. am I a better person and more skilled today than I was yesterday? Put in an effort to improve yourself everyday. If you do this, your skills and self esteem will slowly start to improve day-by-day. Before you know it you will be like the rest of your colleagues and other people will start looking up to you, but it takes time and perseverance.
    2. Lack of talent: this is a difficult realisation to come to and to accept if that’s the case. It’s possible that perhaps you don’t have a knack for it. If that’s the case, then no amount of effort and work will make you good enough to get you to the point where you start enjoying what you do. You might feel horrible for a short while about having failed at your attempts, but the good news is that you can stop feeling miserable about your futile attempts and start working towards something that you are talented at. Try your hand at other things to find out what your other talents, then get a direction in your life and stick to it.
  3. The wrong work environment: this could be one of two things:
    1. Assholes: as the saying goes (it might have been Freud or the Twitter user Notorious d.e.b that came up with it) , “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.” Being surrounded by those kinds of people can act as a drain on your self esteem and therefore if you lose confidence you will lose the ability to produce good work and be passionate about your work. It could be constant criticism or passive aggressive behaviour from co-workers or a horrible manager etc. If that’s the situation you’re in, then get out and find another job with people you can relate to, then see if you feel differently about your career.
    2. Mismanagement: it could be that you have a terrible boss who doesn’t know how to manage people and you find yourself in the middle of chaos everyday. It’s normal to go through stressful times and chaos, but if it’s ongoing it means that people and projects are mismanaged. In this scenario, see if you can correct any mismanagement by you managing yourself and your projects. If that’s not possible, then the same advice applies: get out and find another job before you give up on your career.

The kind of work needed to make money in the tech industry

The fundamental difference between poor people and rich people is that poor people believe that the harder they work the more money they will make, while the rich know that they have to rely on leverage to to make the big money. Leverage means either relying on others to do the work for you or earning interest on investments or earning commission.

  1. Other people’s work: if you’re at the beginning of your career it will take you years to get to top managerial positions where you get to leverage off of other people’s work. Not to mention that not everybody is capable of getting to that level – you have to be the best of the best.
  2. Investments: many makes money, so if you don’t already have a lot of it to invest it will take you years before you earn that kind of money on interest/dividends.
  3. Commission: this leaves you with the last option; start selling IT solutions if that’s what turns you on. If you’re a passionate technologist, then your first obstacle will be suppressing and overcoming your passion for technology (or whatever else you love), meaning that you will have to prioritise money over everything else. It’s easier to do that if you’re not particularly good at what you you’re currently doing. That is typically why they say that to become a salesman you have to fail at everything else first. That’s not to say that sales isn’t interesting or challenging, it is, but you have to have a certain aptitude for it: you have to be a risk taker, good with people and an exceptional strategist to make the really big bucks i.e. that’s the difference between a guy selling sun glasses on the side of the road and a successful corporate salesman. Examples:
    1. Steve Jobs is a prime example of such a man that wasn’t that good as an engineer but he was a genius at sales and marketing. He managed to get others to build solutions for him and he would sell it on to the world.
    2. Ideally you should be both an exceptional engineer and salesman, but that’s very rare. Bill Gates is such an example and because of it he and Microsoft had an almost complete monopoly in the software industry, across the world, while he was in charge.
    3. Linus Torvalds on the other hand was the exact opposite of Steve Jobs; he’s probably the best coder that’s ever lived but he’s never cared about money and is not much of a people person, hence he has not made a fraction of the money that either Steve Jobs or Bill Gates made … but he’s made enough from what I’ve heard.
    4. Mark Zuckerberg is a bit of an anomaly which has made him a hero to pure technologists around the world: he’s an exceptional coder but not a salesman (if The Social Network movie is anything to go by). However he was at the right time at the right place, has a passion for connecting people and very smart to leverage off of exceptional salesman like Sean Parker, Peter Thiel etc. without letting them get the upper hand.

Moral of the story: get into sales if you want to make the big bucks, but if you love technology more than money you probably won’t make that much of it in your life … which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing as long as you enjoy what you’re doing.