Politics, economics and, in general, social sciences have historically been areas that posed questions to society. Clearly, these disciplines were (and continue to be) present in our daily lives and activities. On the other side, we have the case of mathematics, physics or the so-called exact sciences, much more “distant” and intangible and, therefore, far away from everyday life. However, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution era, the issue of software has become crucial: the future of the world is digital. In his essay “No Silver Bullet”, Brooks (1975) identifies software’s four essential problems: complexity, conformity, changeability and invisibility. His argument here is that software is seen as something capable of adapting to any circumstance or environment. It is seen as something easy-to-run, where adding a “little button” in an app is much easier than building a new floor in a building (for who would ask for the latter?). This perception produces confusions and bold statements even in the sharpest minds. However, it is important to keep in mind, paraphrasing Brooks, that software is not embedded in space (and is also in the exact sciences side).
Software development is not for everyone and, contrary to the belief of some people, not all companies are software companies.
Can and should all companies be software companies? For the former CEO of General Electric, Jeff Immelt, the answer is (or used to be, at least) yes (Twentyman, 2015). Moreover, the executive has also stated that millennials, regardless of their area of expertise, should also learn to program. These types of statements, attractive in interviews and social media, create the idea that being a software company is something simple and suitable for almost everyone. Nothing could be further from the truth. Should a Human Resources whiz, or a born leader capable of motivating a team in the most adverse circumstances, be limited to the writing of lines of code? If Flannery O’Connor were a millennial, should she also learn to program? If so, would she still contribute to literature the way she did?
In order to be a software company, you have to be born a software company. Digital innovation and technology are our essences: they are the air we breathe. Programmers are the core of our business, and generating disruptive solutions is the engine that drives us forward. These processes are neither simple nor quick: they are long-term and demand full-time efforts. There is no way we can build airplanes or hospitals during the day and disruptive IT systems at night. That is unless we are not only a software company but also the Batman of digital transformation.
As I have mentioned before, building software has essential problems that were identified by the software engineer and computer scientist Fred Brooks in his essay “No Silver Bullet” (1975). By that time, it was beginning to be discovered that making software was much more complex than making hardware. This complexity is what makes the software industry exciting, with conundrums such as the next great innovation in the health sector (something that is surely keeping Immelt awake).
Let’s say, for a moment, that all companies are software companies. What would happen with their strategic differentials, those that are the engine of competitive leverage (as defined by Porter in Competitive Strategy: Techniques for analyzing industries and competitors)? What would happen to companies in general? Would they be different or “more equal”? What would differentiate companies if they are all software companies? How would this prompt us to keep innovative? If we are all good at the same thing, none of us is. If we are all the same, how do we specialize in those processes and structures that make development possible?
Today, the world’s engine is digital. We are living in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, whose center is technology. Software is the key to transforming traditional businesses into innovative ones, as well as keeping organizations afloat in the market. It is a differential that not everyone can develop. This is something important to consider, even more so if we take into account Martec’s Law, which states that technologies transform exponentially while organizations do so logarithmically. In other words, some technologies go in spaceships while organizations only by climbing stairs. Every eighteen months we have a micro-disruption born in Silicon Valley that shapes, for the next five years, the priorities of those among us who are industry players. Let’s keep in mind that we are not considering, in this analysis, other innovation centers such as those in Israel, Japan or Germany. In the past, it was Artificial Intelligence, today it is Deep Learning and, in the future, it will possibly be Self-Supervised Learning and many other innovations. Injecting innovation is complex, but it is the only way to close the gap and prevent emerging competitors from becoming direct threats.
Source: Crespo, B. (2017). “Digital Transformation: A Concept Born of Fear“.
Quoting Nobel laureate, Bernard Shaw:
If you have one apple and I have one apple, and we exchange apples, then both of us will still have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea, and we exchange ideas, then we both have two ideas.
In the same way, true innovation can only be co-created between companies and external experienced agents, getting the best of each one to generate a formula that fits the needs of a specific situation.
In an increasingly digital world (a process accelerated by the pandemic), software has emerged as a very important subject in everyday life. Somehow, like politics and economics, it has become a cross-sectional issue. It is seen by society as something with a direct impact on our daily lives and activities. But one thing is to evolve, as a company or agent, and start to approach new technologies by acquiring the innovations created by others, while it is quite another one to be the creator of those innovations. In other words, let the cobbler stick to his last.
Check the following co-innovation success story: “Automation: How to Achieve a Significant Reduction in Process Execution Times”.
Brooks Jr., F. P. (1975). “No Silver Bullet” in The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering. Pearson Education.
Crespo, B. (2017). “Digital Transformation: A Concept Born of Fear”. Insights: Knowledge-driven content. https://www.ie.edu/insights/articles/digital-transformation-concept-born-of-fear/
Poter, M. E.  (2004). Competitive strategy: Techniques for analyzing industries and competitors. Free press.
Twentyman, J. (2015). “GE shows why every company needs to be a software company”. I – Global Intelligence for Digital Leaders. https://i-cio.com/innovation/internet-of-things/item/ge-shows-why-every-company-needs-to-be-software-company