Monday, January 17, 2005

The Value of Software

Joel Spolsky is well-known for his personal blog devoted to software and the challenges of running a small software company. Nearly five years ago, he posted an entry characterizing his company as a machine for "converting capital into software that works." He compares building great software to running a great restaurant or making a great movie. I'm interested in this idea because I still see a lot of potential in mom n' pop software shops running in someone's garage, and I'd like to run one myself. One of the great things about building software as a business is that the margins can be so high. Since I'm not interested in scaling mediocrity up to epic proportions to make a ton of money, I wanna know how much value one or a few programmers can generate. Thing is, valuing software is tricky. It's not like a commodity you can put on a scale and determine it's value by simple arithmetic. Plenty of studies have been done to find out how many thousands of lines of code a typical programmer can churn out in a month or a year, or whatever. This is sort of interesting, but on the other hand I could write a script that generates reams of syntactically correct code in moments. It's a case where quality is much more important than quantity. Since I can only slam out so many lines of code, how do I maximize the average value-per-line? And what might that number be in a best-case scenario? How about an average-case? I've got a family to feed!

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Great American Lie

Something that never fails to stun me is every time someone makes it obvious that they believe the meritocracy myth: an underlying assumption that whatever succeeds in America does so because it is good, because it is better than the ones that didn't make it. In fact, the meritocracy myth seems so woven into the fabric of American culture that people are often irritated and defensive if you should suggest that it is a lie. It's such a serious and pervasive lie, that I've come to think of it as the Great American Lie. Little kids hear in school, "If you work hard, you could be president of the United Sates!" You know what? Bullshit. It's sad, because if you believe the lie, you're forced to conclude that wealthy white men are better than everyone else, because that's who becomes president time and time again. In the music business, it's amazing how bad much of the best selling stuff is. I'm so glad I have an economic justification for this in Chris Anderson's excellent article. We're starting to see a glimmer of hope that maybe people are figuring out that obscure stuff can be good, too. I was talking about all of this with a friend of mine, and he reminded me that people like to conform. We're social creatures, and we love hits because they are something we can share. So the demand curve is not going to go flat, nor should it, but it will be wonderful if we can learn to judge for ourselves what should go to the "short head" of the curve, instead of believing the great lie as told by by radio, magazines, and TV.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

What's it mean to be a badass?

I've been trying to figure out the difference between plain ol' developers and architects. It's supposed to be obvious that architects are better, but I want to put my finger on just how.

So I was listening to Jeffrey Zeldman (http://www.zeldman.com) give his keynote address at the Web Design World conference, and he was talking about Eric Meyer, who is a badass in all things to do with Cascading Stylesheets (CSS). He said, "Eric is the kind of guy you really want on your staff when you don't know how to do something with CSS, because he'll know. And not only will he know how to do it, he'll know seven ways to do it and what's wrong with six of them."

That struck a chord with me. A developer should be able to solve a problem, but an architect can describe a half-dozen approaches to the problem and what's right and what's wrong with each of them. I hasten to add that what's right and/or wrong with an approach will always depend on the context in which the problem is situated. That's why you can't replace a good architect/designer with a shelf full of books, or a small army of interns.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

the Long Tail

Here is one of those things that sneaks up on you and then just changes the whole damn world. Chris Anderson's article in Wired magazine is the best I've ever seen on the economics of the entertainment industry, including concrete reasons why we're saddled with the likes of Ashlee Simpson.

The "long tail" refers to the shape of the graph of the quantity of success of a thing (a book or a movie or a record etc.) vs. its rank in the popularity pecking order. It looks like this (from Chris's blog):

That big spike at the front represents the megahits. In music, these are the records at the top of the Billboard chart. The Y axis represents how many copies they sold. The long tail is the area in yellow. This is the obscure stuff. But the significant thing is that there is at least some audience for it. In an age when production costs are plunging, and distribution costs are approaching zero, this means the market for niche products will soon be larger than the market for hits. Not only is this a major disruptive phenomenon for life as we know it, it is wonderful news to these tired ears.

When people ask me what kind of success I want for my band I always tell them, "I want to reach all the people who stand a chance of loving it." The concept of the long tail articulates this beautifully. There are potentially a lot of people buying their records in the "red zone" who would really be into our music. We stand a fighting chance of coaxing them down the curve over to where we are.

I'm trying out Ranchero Software's MarsEdit blog editor. Ranchero is a mom n' pop OS X software company operated by Brent Simmons. I'm currently trying to figure out everything I need to do to copy his life. Actually, that's going a little far; I don't know much about his life. But I do want to copy his work life: creates his own vision, sets his own priorities and schedule, takes all the risks, reaps all the rewards. I'm a big fan of his other product, NetNewsWire (though I admit I've only got the Lite version). It's obvious he takes pride in his work. Bravo.