The End of the Complexity Chain

The software business is different. Not in the never-mind-the-numbers madness of the .com bubble – eventually you have to turn a profit. What I mean is that doing business in the software sphere is a unique experience because of the special place the software industry occupies in the world’s money-go-round: We sit at the very end of the complexity chain.

What’s the Complexity Chain?
When any other industry looks to increase productivity, lower running costs or save time, it looks for suppliers who can suck some complexity out of their operations, ideally leaving only core competency activities behind. Each of these suppliers in turn tries to do the same so they can keep their overheads down and compete on value. The chain goes on from company to company, each extracting complexity from customers and dumping it on suppliers.

But the chain can’t go on to infinity. The complexity has to pool somewhere, and in my opinion it usually ends up in the IT sector. We are there to facilitate or automate every kind of business process imaginable, and allow other industries to concentrate on their core activities. We cannot play the same game – or at least not to the same extent – because in order to provide our particular service, we must make our customer’s competency our own. We have two main jobs to perform:

  • Understand our customer’s business
  • Understand the computing business

We can outsource paper recycling, printer maintenance, travel arrangements and so on but the first thing we do when we begin a project is to absorb the complexity of the business process we are about to automate or facilitate.

What About Software Tooling?
We don’t have to develop in machine code using vi of course. We can use any number of IDEs to make the job easier, not to mention a raft of frameworks and libraries to save time and trouble. These tools will simplify the job of software engineering by allowing us to concentrate on the tough task of translating business requirements into computer programs. But the best that a tool vendor can do is to sell finely crafted chisels to experienced artisans. He cannot produce the goods for us (beware those that say they can). He can’t change the bottom line: software companies have to absorb the core competencies of their customers while retaining their own.

Maybe someday the artisans of software development may be replaced by some combination of artificial intelligences, but to me that still looks like the logic of infinite recursion. In the meantime, the strength of the software development company will remain in its people.

The Importance of the Translator
Ask a German person a question that requires a considered answer. Often the first word you’ll hear back first will be ‘Ja’ – not because the answer to your question is ‘Yes’ but because ‘Ja’ is a common way to say ‘Well…’ in German. If a translator doesn’t know this, an international meeting can end in tears.

Translators typically understand the source language very well, and speak the target language as their mother tongue. Good software engineers can do the same: They can understand real-world problems well enough to explain them to machines that have zero tolerance for ambiguity.

The job of translation is an atomic one – you can’t use one translator’s brain to understand and another’s to translate. It all happens inside one head. Software engineering cannot be reduced any further. A single software engineer’s brain is the crucible in which the two competencies – the customer’s and the engineer’s – are brought together, right at the end of the complexity chain.

– brendan lawlor

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