No Rest For The Innovators

Editor’s note: Alan Trefler is the founder and CEO of Pegasystems.

If you are in the software business, you have to be cringing at the satirical portrayal of the industry in today’s entertainment media.

In HBO’s “VEEP,” Julia Dreyfus’ character Selina Meyer makes a trip to Silicon Valley to court the support of fictional software giant Clovis, run by a 26-year old wunderkind Craig Jergensen who is “wipe out the deficit rich.” Craig is unable to meet with the vice president because he is in the middle of his “random coding hour,” treated as a sacred event across the company.

During her visit, Selina sees the Lego room, which she mistakes as company-sponsored day care but that is in fact designed for creative types, a “Black Skies Idea Room. Google has blue skies but Craig doesn’t stop at the atmosphere.”

Silicon valleyCraig eventually emerges to give a smartwatch demo (the company’s “Smartch”) that passively exchanges users’ profiles should they decide to shake hands. The demo fails. But Craig says: “We have a saying here at Clovis: Dare to fail.” Making her exit, Selina replies: “Well then, that’s a job well done!”

In Amazon’s “Beta” the pompous self-delusions of more Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are ridiculed as a small group with a social media idea called “BRB” (location based meet-ups for individuals with high probability of potential compatibility). The entrepreneurs suffer in the cross fire of mammoth egos, each trying to “make the world a better place” while trying to survive the incubator experience and pander covertly to venture capitalists and potential acquirers.

And in HBO’s “Silicon Valley” from Mike Judge, the ridicule is supersized, and the stereotypes get even more stereotypical, most effectively captured in the show’s promotional image of the entire cast posing as Steve Jobs.

But that’s why I run a software company rather than produce a TV series. What do I know? (I will admit that even though SCRUM is definitely not an “organizational methodology” to improve productivity, the depiction in episode 5 of how to introduce Agile to a software team was pretty funny.)

“Silicon Valley” is currently nominated for seven Emmys. Viewers have spoken and find the parodies of pretentious software startups amusing and the social criticism on target.

So what happened to software? How is it that the vision of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard starting something in their one-car Palo Alto garage could be played today by Harold and Kumar? What happened to software so that innovation is now caricatured as trivial pursuits driven by ego, greed and self-deception?

I have a theory.

Remember the heady days of early web services in 2000? Remember when the network was the computer? The dot-com tsunami was cresting, and a new set of Internet-flavored acronyms (SOAP, XML, UDDI, and WSDL), device-independent Java programming language, made us forget our pathetic efforts at system-to-system sharing and integration. The world was our SOA (service-oriented architecture) oyster and software designers could write code for an entire public and open network of networks, rather than a single device.

Much happened in the ensuing decade, but clearly that promise ran into reality. Reliable interoperability, governance, alignment to priorities, scope creep, escalating change cycles, and my favorite bête noire – the execution and requirements gap – made delivering on the promise of SOA and web services difficult.

Notwithstanding, kudos to the Internet survivors of the dot-com era — Amazon, eBay, Google – who each in their own way tamed the monster and created global class services that transformed their B2C business models. Companies that followed that model and developed similarly effective but globally accessible business services by combining and re-combining those services also flourished, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and SFDC in the first wave, and Airbnb, Zillow, Uber, Tripadvisor and OpenTable, in the next.

What made this software explosion so possible? And what made the one-car garage once again a potential nexus for new entrepreneurs? Four things:

  1. Ubiquitously available application infrastructure (hey buddy can you spare me an AWS instance?) and powerful open-source cloud-computing resources.
  2. The practice of agile methodologies to better establish alignment with business priorities and an outcomes-based focus on software innovation.
  3. The taming of unpredictable enterprise-class web services into better behaved global-class RESTful APIs.
  4. The friendly umbrella of the pioneer WOA (web-oriented, cloud-native) infrastructures. Where would Uber or Zillow be without Google Maps?

While these are fantastic (as were SOAP and JAVA), none assure us that we are addressing the key lessons we were supposed to learn in the 2000s. Perhaps most importantly, although iterative agile methodologies have helped to keep the business engaged, what are these enhancements doing to truly empower and engage the business person?

While recombining existing global class services and providing clever overlays is fun, who is doing the heavy lifting to create entirely new sets of global class services as Amazon, Google and eBay have done? Easier to do a social mash-up, like BRB, improve download speeds as in Silicon Valley, but for all the cant about “making the world a better place,” getting acquired by Facebook or Google should not necessarily be a career aspiration for software innovators.

Ultimately, your mother was right: There is no such thing as a free lunch. I read recently that while IBM’s Watson managed to defeat the world’s previously undefeated TV show “Jeopardy!” champion, it consumed 4,000 times more power than the carbon-based life form it humiliated. Those wonderful always-on Infrastructure and Application as a Services software designers and IT pros can’t live without? Greenpeace says they now amount to 2 percent of all global carbon emissions. That’s right up there with the aviation industry. What about tweeting while burning jet fuel as your 777 is stalled on the tarmac?

Similarly, providing effective governance, accountability and security, and delivering true outcomes-as-a-service remains hard work. Managing the daily and, indeed, minute-by-minute deluge of business logic changes across a global organization is even harder and a different order of magnitude than changing your booking time at OpenTable (not that I don’t use and love the service!).

And finally, not all systems are global, cloud native environments with nicely tamed and reliable RESTful APIs. In fact most are not. And they need love, too. Massive call centers, actuarial risk data, government regulations and compliance, customer data, payroll, GL, HR, business analytics and company big data are key ingredients. They may get there in time, but much work remains to be done by software to make businesses become as agile and adaptive as they need to be. There is as yet no “app” for that.

Perhaps our noses are getting pulled by Hollywood for good reason.