Michael Howard Nov 3, 2021 12:34:17 PM 14 min read

Is Software still eating the world?

This edited snippet from Episode 18 of our podcast Beta & Beyond looks at the famous quote “Software's eating the world” by futurist Marc Andreessen, now 10 years old. We discussed this with social scientist, godfather of agile, Nigel Dalton For the full interview listen to Episode 18 of our podcast Beta & Beyond.  

When that quote did come out what was some of the context to Andreessen’s quote ‘software is eating the world’?

Nigel : An incredible time. And then what I think people forget really quickly, if you go back 10 years, we weren't really deeply engaged in Facebook in the way we are now. Mobile devices were kind of clunky, early iPhones, a lot of people still wandering around with, you know, dumb phones, rather than smartphones accordingly.

I was at a company called Lonely Planet at that time, so I can kind of ground my context around what was going on; for us as a book publisher getting deeply disrupted by the world of the web. Now, we were yet to face the ones that Andreessen had with such genius forecast would come this combination of mobile, social, and the web and software powering the way. You know, we kind of missed that, which was a sad instance for us as the executives of Lonely Planet. But you know, you learn a lot from your mistakes accordingly.

And so that's a time people should ground themselves - where were you in 2011? I remember seeing the quote and going oh, no no, the web is all about hardware. It's all about data centres, and faster and faster servers and more storage and getting costs of that down and those kind of things. Where his genius was to see the coming together of social mobile. And the fact that you know, my mobile device today I'd say the value of my phone today is 98% software 2% hardware.

In what industry sectors have you seen the most disruption? You talked about your time at Lonely Planet and what happened there - Are there a couple that really stand out for you over the last 10 years?

Nigel : You know, some of them aren’t industries, some of them are social context. So I think the family has been deeply disrupted by technology. Now, of course, I mean, 100 years ago, or longer, people were complaining about these, this modern technology causing the distraction of youth, you know, they sit there with their noses in the device all evening, and don't talk among, don't participate in the piano, singing. And the technology was the novel, it was literally the cheap production of a printed book. And it was causing a generational conflict at way back in the 19th century in fact.

So here we are today I think that tech has disrupted family relationships and some people have grasped it and some people haven't. Who's got a you know, I've got an older family but you know, connected with WhatsApp as a WhatsApp group with a family, of whose home, what's going on and particularly in these pandemic times, that's been really important to leverage in that sense.

Every industry is now sovereign. Some of them absolutely scare me senseless, vehicles for example, I remember when the e-series Mercedes, I’m a bit of a car nut, but the e-series came out, there was an advert and I wish I had taken a photo of it, a giant billboard was 100 million lines of code run an E 63. It was a very nice car, 100 million lines of code. At that very point, I was never going to buy a Mercedes because that strikes me as insanity. On a device that was only mechanical. I mean, 30 years earlier, you know, I like fuel injection, with a chip controlling that stuff and not having to adjust carburettors. That's good. But oh my goodness, the safety aspects, all those kind of things. And you go to FinTech, you go to HR tech, which is a space I'm involved in, even science, it's had good sides and it's had bad sides. And the disruption thing is really about who's adapting and that's my kind of field.

What are the mechanics of adapting what's the, what is the dynamics of that? And people kind of have transformation goodness me it's a widely used (term), number of your clients are probably in a digital transformation of some kind, but they're messy. They're really messy. I picked up a lovely word from a theorist called David Snowden who talks about that ‘it's liminal’, which is a description. It’s not something from Lord of the Rings, it's actually a word that describes the kind of the chaos of transitioning between one stage to another. We're in one of those eras now, Andreessen drops us in this liminal era 10 years ago, where software started to eat everything and everything became that way.

But liminal eras are chaotic and they're the frightening and it's the caterpillar turning to the butterfly. You know, I was a curious kid growing up on the farm ‘course I cut the chrysalis open you know, and that's what we do with these transformations of a capability in our companies is we go ‘Oh that was before’ we didn't really have a CRM, we didn't have an ERP, but now we've got global web online markets and we want all the benefits. You get halfway through that and you go ‘Oh, this is hard’ this is why, is it why are people not changing their habits? Why are the salespeople not filling in Salesforce? Or whatever it is that they're using. And the answer is that the chrysalis is not some magical creature of you know, half caterpillar half butterfly. It's, it's it's ooze, you've got to decompose to recompose your business. And yes, you might get a butterfly out the other end or occasionally you won't. So having cut a few chrysalis’ as open as a small child, I'm familiar with that dilemma. But nothing, nothing will remain undisturbed by the current kind of web, social commerce connective economy.

In Andreessen 's original 2011 article he closes with three challenges: financial headwinds, skill shortages and improving worth. Do you feel like those challenges he referenced are still relevant today, or would you put a different mix in there?

Nigel : I think that they were, he was pretty prescient, I think the 30 year challenges. They're a generational challenge. Now as we go through one of those liminal eras, of kids at school starting to learn to code…and we're still dealing with an industry that's toxic towards women and underrepresented groups in technology…until we make that a more level playing field, we're going to suffer those things. And a lot of it does come from the skills shortages. So it's not an attractive job for half the population, which is a crazy thing to have done. And so we have to go offshore, you know, we have to go to markets where, you know, I have a 3000 army of software developers in Thoughtworks China, that I can rely upon to help with projects I'm involved in, but not everyone has that luxury.

And it's not about the price. You know, that's the incredible thing, the growth of the global middle class, particularly software developers is going to make the same price to develop software in the Ukraine, as it is Australia now. It's about the talent and where we're redirecting – you’ve got far too many lawyers and not enough software engineers. And you know that that's kind of getting people encouraged to do it. And every sector is suffering. I see all the different sectors of the Australian economy, particularly government, health care, retail I'm working in at the moment, and yeah, this revolution has slowed, you know, because literally, we're probably short 30 to 40,000 software engineers in Australia.

Is that such a long-term cycle that you might see a shift back towards more offshore type work, or did it feel like it was moving back to an onshore model there for a little bit?

Nigel : I think it's gonna be a blend, it's what COVID taught us is that the traditional views of the workplace and then outside the workplace, have gone. It's a, it's a kind of continuum, a blended thing. And some of those people will be not in your country, what language they speak, or what culture they are from should become irrelevant…it's about getting the job done.

That's the joy of software isn't it? It's a relatively universal language, understanding the job to be done is a little more tricky.

And that's where I think the emphasis in the industry will go is really smart people, what we used to call business analysts effectively, understanding the struggle, understanding the problem, and then getting the right tools for the job out of the market, or, you know, building it, if it's an original idea yourself. That's, that's really the magic now is defining the problem and just understanding the dynamics of the customer. Too many people leap straight into software as ‘buy this and the job is done.’ And that I think will be a big error people make in the next five or six years as software becomes cheaper and cheaper.

This is just a snippet from a much longer interview with Nigel Dalton. To listen to the full interview,  including Nigel's insights into the economy of software and services, listen to Episode 18 of our podcast Beta & Beyond.


Talk to us about making data meaningful