Humans of the Digital Transformation

Published by Norberto Herz on

Software is eating the world” sentenced Mark Andreessen on August 2011 on his famous essay published by The Wall Street Journal. He made references to a wide range of topics, from which I find this one particularly interesting: Virtually every company should become a software company. This concept has become a cliché, and I’m trying not to make it super extense, but providing some examples on how software companies are leading their (not software) industries (let’s call their vertical industries for abbreviation).

Years ago, while planning your vacations, you probably looked for accommodation by calling or booking directly with the hotel. Some companies like made it easy by letting you look up at several hotels on a single search. However, the game-changer was Airbnb. Airbnb provides accommodation by owning literally zero places for you to stay. What Airbnb has, is an amazingly available software that let owners publish their homes, and users book them.

What about Uber? How many cars do they own? How many drivers do they employ?

Could we think of Spotify? Do they (or did they) create music? Do musicians work for them?

Amazon, Netflix, the uprising Fintechs?

What Andreessen didn’t address (at least on that essay) is, what would happen with people working on businesses on those displaced industries. That’s probably because this transformation doesn’t seem to restrict people from accessing their usual jobs. It might force a revaluation, in any case.

More recently, progress in automation, robotics, and AI stroke again and raised the eternal question, “What will people work at, once robots replace us?” Before diving in, I must warn the reader: I’m a technology advocate. I apply common sense, arguments, and thoughts, but I’m biased toward accepting what technology offers. So, let’s assume that it is true that humans need to work or the world will fall apart (arguable, right?) Will technology, and specifically software, replace us or will it make our lives better? Can jobs be transformed in a way that we are still involved?

Opinion: Yes, but it means that software will become a commodity. A skill people will depend on, like elemental maths, or reading and writing. In that sense, in the future, not knowing software will be comparable to analphabetism. Nobody would recommend stopping using language, so we have a more inclusive talent pool. Au contraire, the recommendation is to fight analphabetism by educating as many people as possible.

So this is the real gap: How will this workforce be educated in time? Are universities prepared for reducing the go-to-market of a professional? Should we speed up a new educational paradigm that is more pragmatism oriented? Moreover, in a distant future, shouldn’t it be elementary education teaching this? Luckily, around the world, there are already companies and organizations working on it. There are of all shapes and colors: Paid, free, freemium, for self-taught, or academia persona, young and starting or professionals changing careers. I have started a GitHub repo to curate (with the community) a collection of resources for learning software development.

Companies and professionals will need to shift, as well. When I started my professional career, 20 years ago, and these days too, companies look for full-blooded developers. Even people seem to make a massive distinction between those who can code and the “real developers,” born of Von-Neumann’s machines and forged in the eternal fire of the very source code. If software becomes a commodity, some people might treat it like any other skill. The same way that there are mathematicians and literati, when the time comes, we will have software developers and people who code. Moreover, that’s fine.

Not everything will be just peachy, though. As with any other transformation, there will be some people unable or unwilling to get on board. What to do for them? Who are responsible, public or private sectors? Both? Best case scenario, incomes will be covered. Will these people be able to cope with the lack of purpose? Will society, as a whole, be ready to embrace a new life paradigm? I’m unclear about this. However, I’m clear about not letting them on their own. We are responsible for this transformation, in both good and bad ways.

Will it reach every single job? I don’t think so. I don’t believe that absolutely every profession will need it. Once again, think about the one that is farthest from maths (today) or think about music, for instance. Is it far from maths? Not at all. Do all musicians think in terms of maths? Neither.