Life Imitates Code. Essays by Ka Wai CheungEssays by Ka Wai Cheung from around the web.

Business & Work ● April 2012

Who is the new business programmer?

The original dot-com bubble was an empty canvas that quickly filled up with overnight, more-talk-than-substance sensations.

Corporate websites littered with hijacked stock photography made you seem big even though you were small. Programming teams were precariously assembled. Get them in a room together, rough out the specs, deploy some code to a set of clunky servers, and start selling scented toys for pet chihuahuas.

Back then, a team of programmers was typically relegated away from the front lines of clients and customers. Let the men and women in sharp suits with the grab-bag of buzzwords sell your product while the tech group toils away, carving out each line of code.

Programmers were also specialists. You put out casting calls for a Java developer, a PHP programmer, or an Oracle DBA. Their merit was simply defined by how well they could program.

Today, small web shops—I mean really small web shops—are building apps that reach well beyond the underground cult of web geeks. And it’s often the programming team running the show.

Take Threadless, an online T-shirt-design-competition-turned-$30-million-a-year business. Or 37signals, makers of web-based productivity apps that are used by your mom-and-pop shop as much as by a company like Adidas or Kellogg’s. Or Campaign Monitor, an email marketing software company that now boasts more than 100,000 customers.

These are the golden children of the web industry today: Web-based, programmer-driven businesses running on well fewer than 100 people. Their meteoric rise began, not with VC-funded, empty promises of business grandeur, but rather with a core group of developers building something real out of a few simple ideas. Peldi Guilizzoni left Adobe’s development team to launch Balsamiq as a one-man software company building mockup tools. Now, he runs a multi-million-dollar-a-year company, and it all started with the programmer at the helm.

Today, there are countless other small, hugely successful web shops running with fewer than a few dozen people on staff. And when you’re part of a company that small, your programmers are also your marketers, your business development people, and your customer support team. The new business programmer has to be capable of much more than simply programming.

Speak, write, support

For my company’s flagship product, DoneDone, a web-based issue tracking tool used by thousands of people in more than 60 countries, we make it clear that our developers are the customer service team. Our mugs are right there on the support page. There’s no 1-800 number, and we don’t reduce customer service to a printed manual. When a customer sends us a bug, it goes directly to one of the four of us. We try to fix problems fastidiously or offer sound short-term workarounds. It’s a very human process.

That is one of the advantages a small shop can claim over a larger one. We can afford to be personal and utterly transparent. This means that the new small business programmer has to communicate well.

Diversification over specialization

In just 15 years, we went from 56k modem connections to T1s to Wi-Fi. We went from desktops to laptops to tablets to mobile devices. We’ve gone from 800 x 600 standard resolutions to mobile screens and 1600-pixel-plus displays. We’ve evolved from static sites to Flash apps to jQuery and HTML5. Page-by-page development to MVC frameworks. Dedicated servers to spinning up servers in the Cloud.

If the first 15 years is any sign of what the next 15 will bring, the new business programmer has to maintain as much breadth as depth of expertise. When we hire new developers at my company, We Are Mammoth, we seek generalists over specialists. While we build our applications on a Microsoft technology stack, more than half of our developers came from other backgrounds (Flash/Flex, PHP, Ruby, and Python to name a few). Our front-end devs, primarily self-trained in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, are also learning how to code in C#.

What matters now isn’t which languages you’re comfortable in, but your ability to adapt to different ones. Regardless of which development stack you started on, the underlying best practices of programming are the same. The goals of a successful web app will always be fixed. Speed, features, and an intuitive UI are concepts that won’t be fading anytime soon.

The programming-business bridge

The new tech buzzword of the day isn’t “cloud”, it’s “DevOps.” While the name might end up sharing space with “Information Superhighway” in our modern-day vernacular trash bin, the idea behind the DevOps movement has more staying power.

The DevOps engineer is a new breed of technical thinker, specially geared toward impacting a small-in-size business with big ideas. This kind of engineer possesses a technical mind that can look at technology in two broad vectors.

First, she’s technology agnostic. A DevOps engineer is multi-disciplinary, as comfortable with hardware infrastructure, as with database tuning, or application testing. Everything “tech” is just part of a toolset to get a solid web app off the ground.

A DevOps engineer also understands business goals. No longer are we relegating programmers to one room and the business team to the other. Today, a programmer can be equally concerned about why he’s building something as he is with what he’s building. Moving from a dedicated server environment into the cloud? Today’s programmer should be able to gather technical feasibility alongside monetary impact and business benefits. In today’s small web businesses, the hard gap between programmer mind and the business mind is quickly eroding.

So, who is the new business programmer? For starters, it’s someone whose reach goes well beyond just writing code.

Originally published Apr 4, 2012 at VentureBeat. Go to the next essay in Business & Work, “Being your own boss is about being your own employee”.