Book Review: The New Kingmakers

I just finished reading the fascinating new mini-eBook “The New Kingmakers” from Redmonk co-founder Stephen O’Grady. This book represents a more in-depth analysis of a premise put forth by O’Grady a couple years back: developers are the single most important constituency in technology. O’Grady doubles-down on that claim here, and while I think he proves aspects of this, I wasn’t completely won over to that point of view.

O’Grady starts off explaining that

“If IT decision makers aren’t making the decisions any longer, who is calling the shots? The answer is developers. Developers are the most-important constituency in technology. They have the power to make or break businesses, whether by their preferences, their passions, or their own products.”

He goes on to describe the extent to which organizations crave developer talent and how more and more acquisitions are about acquiring talent, not software. Because, as he states, EVERY company is in part a technology company, the value of competent coders has never been higher.

His discussion of “how we got here” was powerful and called out the disruptions that have given developers unprecedented freedom to explore, create, and deploy software to the masses. Driven by open source software, cloud infrastructure, internet self promotion, and the new sources of seed money, developers are empowered as never before. O’Grady did an excellent job proving these points. At this stage of the eBook, my thought was “so you’ve proved that developers are valuable and now have amazing freedom, but I haven’t yet heard an argument that developers are truly driving the fortunes of established businesses.” Luckily, the next section was titled “The Evidence” so I hoped to hear more.

O’Grady points out what a developer-centric world would look like, and proposes that we now exist in such a world. In this developer-driven world, we’d see greater technology diversity (which is counter to corporate objectives), growth in open source, lack of adoption of commercially-oriented technology standards, and vendors openly courting developers. Hard to disagree that all of those aren’t true today! O’Grady provides compelling proof points for each of these. However, in passing he says that “as developers have become more involved in the technology decision-making process, it has been no surprise to see the number of different technologies employed within a given business skyrocket.” I wish he had provided some additional case studies for the point that developers play an increasing role in technology decision-making, as that’s not something I’ve seen a ton of. Certainly developers are introducing more technology to the corporate portfolio, but at which companies are developers part of company-wide groups that assess and adopt technology?

Next up, O’Grady reviews set of companies that have had a major impact on developers. He analyzes the positive contribution of Apple (in distributing the work of developers via apps), AWS (in making compute capacity readily accessible), Google (openly courting and rewarding developers), Microsoft (embracing open source), and Netflix (in asking developers to help with algorithms and consuming APIs). Finally, O’Grady outlines a series of suggestions for companies looking to successfully use developers as a strategic asset. I thought each of these suggestions were spot on, and I’ll encourage everyone at my company to read this eBook and absorb these points.

So where was I left wanting? First, if O’Grady’s main point is that companies that treat developers as a strategic asset and constituency will experience greater success, then I’m 100% on board. Couldn’t agree more. But if that point is stretched further to say that developers are possibly the most important assets that ANY company has, then I didn’t see enough proof of that. I would have liked to see more evidence that developers are playing a greater role in corporate technology decisions, or heard about developers at Fortune 100 companies who fundamentally altered the company’s direction. It’s great that developers are influencing new media companies and startups, but what about case studies from boring old industries like government, healthcare, retail, utilities, and construction? Obviously each of those industries use a ton of technology, and often to great competitive advantage, but I would have liked to hear more stories from those businesses vs. the “easy” Netflix/Reddit/Spotify/Zynga tales.

My second wish for this book (or follow up work) was to hear more about the responsibility of developers in this new reality. Developers (and I speak as someone who pretends to be one) aren’t known for their humility, and works like this should be balanced by reminders of the duties that developers have. For instance, it’s great that developers are more inclined to bring all sorts of technologies into a company, but will they be the ones responsible for maintaining 18 NoSQL database products? What about when they leave the company and no one else knows how to fix an application written in a cool language like Go? How about the tendency for developers to choose the latest and greatest technology while ignoring the proven technology that may have been a better fit for the situation? Or making decisions that optimize one part of a broader system at the expense of the greater architectural vision? If developers are the new Kingmakers, then I’d love to read O’Grady’s thoughts on how developers can lead this revolution in a way that promotes long term success for companies that depend on them. Maybe this book isn’t FOR developers as much as it’s ABOUT them, but I’m selfish like that!

If you have a leadership role in ANY type of organization, you should read this book. It’s a fantastic look at the current state of technology and how developers can make or break a company. O’Grady also does a wonderful job proving that there’s never been a better time to be developing software. Hopefully he and the other smart fellows at Redmonk will continue to develop this thesis further and highlight both the successes and failures of developers in this new reality.

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Categories: General, General Architecture

2 replies

  1. I hope this proves to be the case. I’ve based my career to date around this idea. I’m a developer and for the last 17 years I have been offered roles such as business analyst, project leader, IT manager, university lecturer, team leader, dba…. I’ve always decided against such moves because I believe that developers are the one thing organisations can’t do without (except those running totally off the shelf software, but then again someone has to write the off the shelf software).

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