|SPHERE OF INFLUENCE, INC. – software designers
Not so long ago technology was a status symbol only among geeks. Except for video games, regular people tried to ignore it. Cool hip people were cool and hip because they shunned it. That describes the good old days when it was cool to be analog. Today, it’s cool to be digital and us geeks are not in the driver’s seat anymore.
Traditionally-styled on-shore engineering organizations are doomed. Systems engineering workflows, with their stogy view of requirements and capabilities have become so old-school that they may soon be forgotten. The modern world of technology is a mix of engineering, creativity, science, art, and culture. You might think, “Hey, I don’t develop apps, I develop software. My customers are military and serious business users with critical mission needs. None of this applies to me”.
BS! It applies to you!
If you produce software that interacts with users, you need to keep up. Your users have computers at home, in the car, in the pocket. Their expectations are set by these devices, not by your training manual.
It’s not just the user demographic that’s changing though; I see a clear change in the DNA of people who develop tech. The industry used to be dominated by science and engineering types. Not generally the most visual or social creatures, but good at math, organization, highly detailed work, and complexity…lots of complexity. Nowadays tech is a mosh pit of people who are creative in weird ways, visual ways, intensely human ways. Tech is increasingly about knowing what people want, how they arrive at what they want, and how they visualize. Grids and drop-down boxes are giving way to interactive infographics and rich media. Requirements and capabilities are giving way to anticipating what designers call “the new now”, which makes everything up to the current moment “then”. You can’t do that in an SRS A-Spec, volume 1 line item requirements document. Times are evolving!
This isn’t the first changing of the guard, it happened before. From the 1940’s through the early 70’s the field was dominated by “computer scientists”, i.e. mathematicians who prefer binary. Guys like John von Neumann and Donald Knuth led the industry with fundamental work in data structures, operating systems, and algorithms. Departments didn’t hire software engineers or programmers, they hired mathematicians. Then, with the IBM System/360 and its contemporaries the field of “data processing” (forerunner to what we call IT today) was born. Data Processing ushered a division of labor that radically changed the talent mix. The mathematicians (computer scientists) were replaced by Systems Analysts, Programmers, Data Engineers, and whatnot. Data Processing slowly evolved into things we have today like systems architecture and information technology. That’s how things have been; until recently.
Left-brainers | replaced by right-brainers
Today’s shift is perhaps even more radical. When the computer scientists got pushed out in the 70’s they were replaced by other left-brained people. But today we see the left-brainers getting replaced by right-brainers. The kind of people who used to work only in marketing agencies, movies, and other artistic industries are hot commodities in tech.
These right-brainers aren’t taking over the programming and engineering, at least not yet. But they are taking over concept development and everything else related to what the product is, how it looks, what it does, and how it is sold. They design products with the intent to satisfy people completely, not just by automating a task or doing some work – but by completely making the technology into what the person thinks the machine should always have been. They are the true “Architects” of tech, because they create products and experiences that appeal to human beings. Engineers have tried for decades to achieve this but their sense of efficiency and minimalism frequently gets in the way and ruins the product. That, and engineers are well-known to have no sense of style.
End of an era | systems engineering
Systems analysts and systems engineers are in the cross hairs for a demotion. In the old school they decided product content and requirements, and in that function their services may no longer be required. Right-brainers want to take that over, and in general they have proven to be better at it. They move faster, they project stronger visions, and they don’t waste time with paperwork and nonsense. They create, they drive, they dictate; and, in a weird way…it really works. Even on apps for serious business and military purposes they tend to excel. Outside of some very niche things, there’s no safe harbor from these talents. Users and customers prefer products that are inspired and led by these types of people, and that preference will ultimately drive the flow of dollars in our industry.
Science | Engineering | Design
Scientists create new possibilities, open new doors.
Engineers widen those doors with a focus on scale, efficiency, and improvement.
Designers tear out the doors completely with an instinct to make manmade objects feel natural and familiar while expanding a product’s value and purpose.
The danger with Designers is they can become overly driven by style and art, sometimes forgetting substance. This isn’t as common as you think, but it happens – and this is where engineers are very useful.
Design, in the modern sense, is a task of fusing art --> engineering --> science.
Recognize this if your organization creates technology. The talent mix of your staff needs to reflect all three. You need people who are good at fundamental technical advance; people who are good at driving scale, efficiency, and improvement; and people who are good at art, perception, intuition, and style. Very seldom is one person good at any two, let alone all three – so it takes a division of labor to get it right. Seriously consider letting your most intuitive people, a.k.a. “designers” lead the product. And, moreover, age doesn’t matter. Your customers will thank you.
These right-brain talents are not things you bolt on at the end or corral into the UI. That’s old-school thinking. New-school is to turn these talents loose on the entire product.
If a couple more years pass and your new products are still getting defined and driven by old-school systems engineers…your days could be numbered.
Not hate’n…just say’n.