Tuesday, December 07, 2010

"I Just Need A Programmer"...

As the semester winds down and my programming students set forth to blaze a trail in the world of technology, there's one thing that they can definitely expect... It's inevitable that people will start coming to them excited with new business ideas claiming, "I just need a programmer".

Professor Eugene Wallingford wrote a terrific post about this phenomenon...

As head of the Department of Computer Science at my university, I often receive e-mail and phone calls from people with The Next Great Idea. The phone calls can be quite entertaining! The caller is an eager entrepreneur, drunk on their idea to revolutionize the web, to replace Google, to top Facebook, or to change the face of business as we know it. Sometimes the caller is a person out in the community; other times the caller is a university student in our entrepreneurship program, often a business major. The young callers project an enthusiasm that is almost infectious. They want to change the world, and they want me to help them!

They just need a programmer.

Someone has to take their idea and turn it into PHP, SQL, HTML, CSS, Java, and Javascript. The entrepreneur knows just what he or she needs. Would I please find a CS major or two to join the project and do that?

Most of these projects never find CS students to work on them. There are lots of reasons. Students are busy with classes and life. Most CS students have jobs they like. Those jobs pay hard cash, if not a lot of it, which is more attractive to most students than the promise of uncertain wealth in the future. The idea does not excite other people as much as the entrepreneur, who created the idea and is on fire with its possibilities.

It's so true. There has always been a disconnect between the "idea people" and the computer programmers. As a result, the expectations of both parties are often grossly unaligned. I've personally been hired for some projects where the client thought I'd need 6 months to finish, when it actually only took a few days; and conversely, I've also had other projects where the client thought something would be a small, simple task that would only take a few days, when in reality they needed an entire team of software enginners working full-time over many months to reverse-engineer all of Google.

Case in point... I get new ideas for iPod apps emailed to me by friends practically every week. "Come on", they say, "Here's a great idea for an app, and if you just program it, then we'll split the money".

My reaction is usually to cringe - even when the idea is a good one. The reason: Most likely I'm going to invest weeks and/or months of my life programming this thing, and be lucky to earn over $100. At that point my friend would likely throw their hands up and respond, "Well, at least we tried", never fully understanding how time-consuming the effort was on my part.

This isn't hypothetical. Based on past experiences, I typically don't even come close to earning the equivalent of minimum wage, when breaking down revenues by programming hours invested. And it's not because my friend is a sheister; it's because our expectations are out-of-whack. He thinks his idea is what's crucial to the endeavor; I think it's my programming that's drives the whole thing.

The truth is we're both right. And both wrong.

Professor Wallingford is right to argue that "the value of a product comes from the combination of having an idea and executing the idea". In other words, both are necessary, and people tend to overestimate their own worth based on whether they are the "idea guy" or the "execution guy" (a.k.a. - the computer programmer), but they do so at their own peril. The truly successful enterprises recognize the equal value of both elements.

It would be great if more "idea people" actually put in the effort to learn how to program and execute their ideas themselves. That would definitely show their seriousness and commitment to the project to whomever else they might later approach. If I could endow my students with one piece of advice, it would be to look for those folks.


At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Eddie Kim said...

So true. I was always one to believe that there is no such thing as a "million dollar idea". I enjoyed your post.


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