Monday, December 06, 2010

"I Just Need a Programmer"

I Just Need a Programmer
"As head of the CS Department at the University of Northern Iowa, Eugene Wallingford often receives e-mail and phone calls from eager entrepreneurs with The Next Great Idea. They want to change the world, and they want Prof. Wallingford to help them. They just need a programmer. 'Many idea people,' observes Wallingford, 'tend to think most or all of the value [of a product] inheres to having the idea. Programmers are a commodity, pulled off the shelf to clean up the details. It's just a small matter of programming, right?' Wrong. 'Writing the program is the ingredient the idea people are missing,' he adds. 'They are doing the right thing to seek it out. I wonder what it would be like if more people could implement their own ideas.'"

December 01, 2010 3:45 PM

"I Just Need a Programmer"

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.

A few of the idea people who don't make connections with a CS student or other programmer contact me a second and third time, hoping to hear good news. The younger entrepreneurs can become disheartened. They seem to expect everyone to be as excited by their ideas as they are. (The optimism of youth!) I always hope they find someone to help them turn their ideas into reality. Doing that is exciting. It also can teach them a lot.

Of course, it never occurs to them that they themselves could learn how to program.

A while back, I tweeted something about receiving these calls. Andrei Savu responded with a pithy summary of the phenomenon I was seeing:
@wallingf it's sad that they see software developers as commodities. product = execution != original idea
As I wrote about at greater length in a recent entry, the value of a product comes from the combination of having an idea and executing the idea. Doing the former or having the ability to do the latter aren't worth much by themselves. You have to put the two together.

Many "idea people" tend to think most or all of the value inheres to having the idea. Programmers are a commodity, pulled off the shelf to clean up the details. It's just a small matter of programming, right?

On the other side, some programmers tend to think that most or all of the value inheres to executing the idea. But you can't execute what you don't have. That's what makes it possible for me and my buddy to sit around over General Tsao's chicken and commiserate about lost wealth. It's not really lost; we were never in its neighborhood. We were missing a vital ingredient. And there is no time machine or other mechanism for turning back the clock.

I still wish that some of the idea people had learned how to program, or were willing to learn, so that they could implement their ideas. Then they, too, could know the superhuman strength of watching ideas become tangible. Learning to program used to be an inevitable consequence of using computers. Sadly, that's no longer true. The inevitable consequence of using computers these days seems to be interacting with people we may or may not know well and watching videos.
Oh, and imagining that you have discovered The Next Great Thing, which will topple Google or Facebook. Occasionally, I have an urge to tell the entrepreneurs who call me that their ideas almost certainly won't change the world. But I don't, for at least two reasons. First, they didn't call to ask my opinion. Second, every once in a while a Microsoft or Google or Facebook comes along and does change the world. How am I to know which idea is that one in a gazillion that will? If my buddy and I could go back to 2000 and tell our younger and better-looking selves about Facebook, would those guys be foresightful enough to sit down and write it? I suspect not.

How can we know which idea is that one that will change the world? Write the program, work hard to turn it into what people need and want, and cross our fingers. Writing the program is the ingredient the idea people are missing. They are doing the right thing to seek it out. I wonder what it would be like if more people could implement their own ideas.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Software Development


Facebook Wannabes Not Happy With $65 Million

Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss speciously claimed to have helped invent Facebook, winning tens of millions of dollars from the social network. Now they ludicrously want more, and the real inventor of Facebook probably has himself to blame.

"The chapter is not closed on this matter," one of the Olympic rowers told the BBC before an Oxford boat race. His brother added, "It's our duty to stand for principles."

Oh please. The Winklevoss twins are tremendously lucky to have already extracted from Facebook $20 million, plus stock their lawyers valued at $45 million, all in a 2008 legal settlement to make them finally shut up and go away and stop being ridiculous.

But they apparently refuse to do so. They are no doubt emboldened by ex-Valleywag Nicholas Carlson's recent publication of a bombshell IM transcript in which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg admits to duping the pair, back when he was at Harvard working on his own social network. Zuckerberg's IM to a friend, as quoted in Business Insider, was fairly unambiguous:
Check this site out: and then go to Someone is already trying to make a dating site. But they made a mistake haha. They asked me to make it for them. So I'm like delaying it so it won't be ready until after the facebook thing comes out.
HarvardConnection was the social networking site Zuckerberg told the Winklevoss twins he would code for them back at Harvard. In reality, he was coding up Facebook, as the twins were later enraged to discover. Ever since, the pair has been claiming they came up with the key ideas for Facebook, even though the site they asked Zuckerberg to code was focused on dating — and Facebook, quite crucially, eschewed overt romantic networking.

Their claim failed to persuade administrators at Harvard to pursue conduct charges against Zuckerberg. It failed to dissuade Facebook's investors. And it's not gained much traction in the court of public opinion. But thanks to the newly published instant message, as well as Aaron Sorkin's forthcoming movie about Facebook's origins, that could change.

And so the Winklevoss twins — their cash almost entirely claimed as contingency fees by their ex lawyers — want more than the $20 million plus stock they've already received as a reward for having had a social networking brain fart at approximately the same time everyone else was having a social networking brain fart, in 2004, two years after the launch of Friendster and just as MySpace was blooming. They totally thought of the idea of a social network in a college! And if you can't get north of $65 million for having thoughts like that, do you even want to live in America any more?