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The Rise of the Developer: Why Programmers Are Kings

The CEOs and co-founders of some young companies focused on working with developers gathered in San Francisco recently for a roundtable discussion about the evolving role of the coders they serve. The group included GitHub Co-Founder and CEO Tom Preston-Werner, Mixpanel Co-Founder and CEO Suhail Doshi, Stripe Co-Founder and President John Collison, and New Relic Founder and CEO Lew Cirne. The event was hosted at New Relic's soon-to-be-swanky new digs in San Francisco (they made the construction guys take five during the roundtable), and it was moderated by Google Developer Advocate Don Dodge.

Did I say "evolving role"? I should have said growing power, which was the thrust of the discussion entitled "The Developer is King: The Power Behind the Throne." I guess with all the press about Kate and Andrew's royal progeny the metaphor was in the zeitgeist. Needless to say, I didn't hear a lot of grousing about the increasingly public-facing and indispensable developer, but some thoughtful insights from some in-the-trenches execs who know who's buttering their bread.

Dodge, who's resume includes five startups and a five-year stint in developer relations at Microsoft, kicked off the discussion with the central question: Why have developers become so important?

Part of the answer to that question, said Cirne, is a growing focus among software vendors on increasing sales and customer retention with product improvements, a strategy that necessarily emphasizes technical expertise.

"Today companies have a higher proportion of their headcount and focus on product," Cirne said, "[because] you reach more customers, not by doubling the number of sales people, but by delivering stronger products. At the top of your company you have to have a passion for building something your customers care about."

Cirne, who has been credited with creating the Application Performance Management (APM) market, founded his software analytics company in 2008 (though he confessed that he started coding way back in the olden days of 1982). New Relic provides developers with an all-in-one web app performance management tool for the cloud. (Nice intro video on the Web site.)

For Preston-Werner, the rise of the developer is a direct consequence of the rise of the Internet. "The Internet is changing everything about what it means to be a developer," he said. "You can create and distribute products with basically no costs. You have this infrastructure that allows you to transmit info and products to your customers with zero overhead. So now you have the opportunity to create a great product that can sell itself if you have a good market. You're going to need salespeople at some point to help you reach a broader audience, but you can get started immediately."

Preston-Werner's company, GitHub, has become one of the world's most popular social coding sites. Developers love the Git distributed version-control system developed by Linus Torvalds, and GitHub has played no small role in the growth of that popularity. The service has also enjoyed endorsements from the likes of the Eclipse Foundation, which has begun to allow the hosting of its projects on GitHub to attract new and maturing projects.

Collison sees the roots of the developer-is-king trend in the growth of such developer communities. "Over the past few years the online developer community has been getting increasingly verbal, thanks to companies like GitHub, which amounts to a modern day version of a Home Brew Computer Club (where Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniac met)," he said. "One of the advantages for all the companies here is that they nurture an ever growing audience...The developer communities are very close knit. If the product is good enough, the word gets out."

Stripe is an online payment component for developers that Collison founded with his brother, Patrick, in 2009. It's a full-stack payment service that handles things like storing cards, subscriptions, and direct payouts to bank accounts. And the Stripe.js JavaScript library allows devs to build their own payment platforms.

Collison also noted a preference among certain VCs for developer founders.

"Pitching Stripe was tricky," he said. "It's a way of accepting payments on the Internet… Well… that already exists, right? But when we actually walked them through all the steps people had to go through before Stripe, and then showed them Stripe in action, they really understood it. I think investors want to find technical founders to invest in."

Preston-Werner agreed: "You need company founders who understand technology, who speak the same language as developers. And the more you have developers starting companies because it's easy and cheap, the more you need that kind of technical skill in a general partner."

Dodge pointed out that platforms shifts -- mainframes to minicomputers to PCs to the Internet and lately to mobile -- have been cited by industry watchers as another reason developers have become so important. "[E]very time there's a platform shift there are ten times as many developers, and the developer community also grows," he said. "There are hundreds of times more developers [now] than there were mainframe developers."

"In a sense, Stripe was the child of a platform shift," Collison said. "You had all these new kinds of things happening on the web, and people wanting to run businesses on the web, and companies that were not fundamentally not set up for that. It wasn't that companies were deliberately trying to make anything complex. They were operating in a completely different frame of reference. We build from the ground up for the web."

Developers are not only more important than ever to an enormous range of organizations, but they continue to be a very tough crowd to please, added Cirne.

"Their BS meters are incredibly sensitive," he said. "And that means that we're on the hook every day to deliver on whatever we're claiming. Developers also have this instinct, if you haven't guessed already, to ask, 'I wonder how hard it would be to build myself?' It holds us accountable for building quality products, as opposed to having a quality pitch or sales process."

"The only way to convince a developer is by giving them a demo and showing them how its better," said Preston-Werner. "The beauty is, you plant these seeds around the world, and those people will evangelize it for you. Because another thing that developers are great at is telling other developers what works for them.

But the rise of the developer may have simply been inevitable, said Doshi, because of the inherent power of the skillset in a software-centric world.

"Being a developer makes you feel like you've got a superpower," he said. "That's because you can think about something in the world that you want to build, and then you can go and build it. The reason the developer has become so important and valuable is [because] it feels limitless in terms of what your potential can be. You find that you can make this huge impact by building software. Then you get together with five or six other people with super powers and you're like the Avengers. And you go and do something great for the world. You go and build a Google or a GitHub."

Posted by John K. Waters on July 29, 2013