The Secret of the Software Industry

The SalesmanIt's an exciting time to be in the software industry. With the dot com boom and bust, and now “web 2.0” and social networking in the mainstream, we're still in our infancy but growing up.

On a grade level, I'd say we're probably around the 9th grade. We're still uncomfortable in our skin, we get excited by the the software that looks a little ‘overdeveloped', and we're just starting to build friendships that will hopefully last a lifetime.

Consumers are finally getting serious with our software. Product managers are finally getting some good taste – complimenting a great product with good design that's sales and marketing worthy.

That said, the fallacy of the software purchase still exists. When you buy a new car, you generally know that it's going to be comfortable, ride well, how it corners and how it accelerates just from the test drive. If you read about it in an auto magazine by a great journalist, you get a real feeling about how the car is going to feel before you ever get in it.

Software has test drives and reviews as well, but they never live up to our expectations, do they? Part of the problem is that, while cars go forward, backward and have doors and wheels, software doesn't follow the same rules… and nor do any two people use it alike. It isn't until we're mired in our day to day work that we figure out what's ‘missing' with the application. It's missed when it was designed. It's missed when it was developed. And worst, it's always missed in the sale.

This is because you and I don't buy software for how we're going to use it. Often times, we don't actually buy it at all – someone buys it for us. The software we use is often mandated due to a corporate relationship, discount, or the manner in which it interacts with our other systems. It amazes me how many times that companies have a robust purchasing process, certification requirements, service level agreements, security compliance, operating system compatibility… but no one actually uses the application until long after the purchase and implementation.

It's, perhaps, one of the reasons why pirating software is so rampant. I don't want to even count how many thousands of dollars of software I've purchased that I used and gave up on, and never used again.

The View from the Software Company

The view from the software company is quite different altogether! Though our applications usually fix a primary problem and that's why people pay for it… there are so many tertiary issues out there that we have to take into consideration when developing it.

  • How does it look? – contrary to popular belief, software is a beauty contest. I can point to dozens of applications that should ‘own' the market but don't even make the cut because they lack the aesthetics that grab the headlines.
  • How does it sell? – sometimes features are marketable, but not really that useful. In the email industry, there was a big push for a while there for RSS. Everyone was asking for it but only a couple Email Service Providers had it. The funny thing is, a year later, and it's still not adopted in the mainstream by email marketers. It's one of those features that are marketable, but not really useful (yet).
  • How secure is it? – this is one of those ‘small' items that are overlooked but can always sink a deal. As software providers, we should always strive for security and have it backed up through independent audits. Not doing so is irresponsible.
  • How stable is it? – surprisingly, stability is not something that's purchased – but it will make your life miserable if it's an issue. Stability is key to an application's reputation and profitability. The last thing you want to do is hire people to overcome stability issues. Stability is also a key strategy that should be at the foundation of every application. If you don't have a stable foundation, you're building a home that will one day crumble and fall.
  • What problem does it fix? – this is why you need the software and whether or not it will assist your business. Understanding the problem and developing the solution is why we go to work every day.

The secret of the software industry is that we DO NOT sell, buy, build, market and use software well. We have a long way to go before we graduate someday and do it all consistently. To last in this industry, companies often have to develop features and security to sell, but sacrifice usability and stability. It's a dangerous game. I look forward to the next decade and hope that we've matured enough to gain the right balance.


  1. 1

    One of the toughest questions I ever have to answer is, “If you call it software engineering, why can’t you have deterministic outcomes for your projects.”

    My answer is similar to what you talk about here. This is a brand new industry. It took us thousands of years to get back where the Romans had gotten with engineering. One of my favorite moments in Italy was visiting the Pantheon in Rome and seeing the hole where Brunelleschi supposedly cut a hole to figure out how the Romans put up such a big dome (as he was trying to figure out how to finish the Duomo in Florence).

    We are a young discipline and it will take time before we can produce quality software in a consistent manner. That’s why developers are still looked at as kinds of magicians. We need to control as much as we can (feature creep, allowing marketers to drive software architecture, bad management), but we can’t shake the fact that some software’s got it and some ain’t. Till then, this is gold rush time!

  2. 2

    The overdeveloped concept is so true in Web 2.0 It seems many companies are being created around 1 product that you wouldn’t think would be able to sustain an entire company…then, it either gets acquired (which is great for the company) or it fizzles out after minimal adoption.

  3. 3

    I totally agree with the idea that the software industry has not completely developed to the level it needs to be at before it can control the have the software is distributed to the consumer. I mean its totally correct when you say that software is used differently with each consumer and so it always doesnt satisfy everyone. The idea of pirated software arises because of this disatisfation of consumer because you right you pay so much money for a software and use it and then give up on it and never use it again and I guess this idea doesnt fit when you talk about spending money on something that wont be long term. So in the end the idea is true until we can be consistent in buying, building, marketing, and using software we cant stop these wrong ideas from emerging.

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