Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Is implementation important to a startup?

I'm not entirely qualified to answer this question, but here it goes. Taken from the Scala mailing list:

Amir Michail
On 9/2/07, Erik Engbrecht > ...
> All-in-all I would say Scala would be perfect for a small team of > extraordinarily smart developers, but I wouldn't turn your average Java or > C# programmer pulled off the street loose on it. Not because they couldn't > write working Scala code, they could, it would just be a more concise > Java/C#. But I wouldn't start a company based on programmers grabbed off > the street (or leased across the ocean), either. >
I actually don't think implementation is much of an issue for internet startups, particularly for Facebook apps. This is off topic, but I would be interested in knowing what you think of it: http://weblog.fortnow.com/2007/08/impact-of-facebook-platform-on-cs.html http://weblog.fortnow.com/2006/07/science-and-art-of-computation.html
So here's what I wrote (off-list) in response:
Amir, I'm not really qualified to comment on the skills required to write Facebook apps because not only have I never written one, I've never even accessed Facebook. However, I think one of the most effective ways of achieving long-term success for a business is to have a product that is in demand (obviously) and others find very difficult to replicate - or at least replicate to the point where people have difficulty deciding whether to use the new product or the old. The best way I can think of to do that is for the product to have an inherent internal complexity - meaning it requires either hard-core CS skills, substantial domain knowledge, or both to grok it. For example, Google is really an AI company. They don't actively publicize it (nor do they hide it), and I bet the majority of their employees aren't working on anything AI related, but ultimately that's what the company is - and that's why they'll stay ahead. Replicating the core of their business is simply too hard. It certainly could be done, but you'd need to get a sufficiently large group of self-motivated geniuses together who would both cooperate and have enough entrepreneurial spirit to not be lured away by Google. I'm not saying you can't build a successful startup simply by creating something cool and getting a lot of people to use it. You certainly can. In fact, I would say the vast majority of successful startups were built that way. But I also think the vast majority of startups don't have long-lasting products. They have products that fill a (possibly transient) need for a larger player and get acquired. They spend hundreds of thousands for maybe a few million dollars building something that would take a larger player >$10x plus months to replicate, not because the startup is better at engineering or product design - it may or may not be - but because the startup is 1 of 100 or even 1000 so the larger player would have to fund >10 initiatives a pick the somehow pick the best result in order to replicate what the startup did, and it can't do that because it can't release >10 similar products all at the same time without looking stupid to investors and confusing its customers. From what I've read about Facebook apps they are relatively easy to build. If you build a business around one, then essentially you are either trying to be that 1 in >100 that people latch onto long enough for a larger player to be acquired, or so are going to launch yourself on a never ending cycle of re-inventing your application as people duplicate it and trends change. Of course, that's not to say you can't have something really sophisticated at the core of your Facebook app. I'm sure you can. But if you do, implementation matters a whole lot. Implementation tends to lag theory by years if not decades. Your ability to implement is your competitive discriminator. As for the blog articles...well...I think the CS should remain more pure. CS is not programming, but programming is an essential skill for computer scientists (as I actually believe it is for most scientists, but in CS is is a much stronger need). So I think adapting CS to "Web 2.0" is a rather foolhardy exercise. By the time programs adapt we'll be on Web 4.0, so the programs will be behind the times and will have lost the theoretical goodness of CS. That's not to say those programs are bad ideas, I just don't think they should be labeled CS. It dilutes the brand, so-to-speak. I would say CS programs should offer far more electives that are cross-listed with other disciplines, such as business, economics, or the sciences. But these can't replace fundamental courses or even upper level technical electives, so they would need to be framed as to replace what my alma mater called "humanities requirements." -Erik
That's just my opinion, and to tell the truth my opinion has changed over the years. But this is closely related to the ongoing debate about whether a CS backrgound is or is not important for being a software developer. I actually think it is, but I also think a good CS program is overkill (in the CS theory and programming sense) for what most software developers do and grossly inadequate from a communications/requirements analysis sense.

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