What’s the clever bit?

My last day at Sidewalk Labs, the company where I worked on making cities better for the last four years, was December 31st 2021. I’m going to do something new. It’s cool and exciting and I’ll write about it some other time.

Today I want to talk about the clever bit. If you ask me for advice about your startup, I’m going to ask you about the clever bit. What is your unique insight that nobody else thought of so far? It’s not enough to identify a problem to solve, you want to be able to solve it better than other people. Just having a clever bit is not enough of course — you do need to solve a problem for actual people, otherwise you just have a solution looking for a problem.

Still though, it feels like in tech we don’t pay that much attention to this anymore. When you decide to quit your job, it is hard not to glance over those recruiter emails. People seem to be disrupting industry after industry and are raising hundreds of millions of dollars in the process and they are all hiring. This must be the Golden Age of the Technology Startup.

But is it? Tech is in all industries now, disruptingly or otherwise. Software has eaten a large chunk of the world and is still hungry. But when I leaf through the pitches of companies raising 9 digit series A, I am struck by a lack of actual technology. They all wanted to make something faster or more efficient or at a new scale. Fine. Great.

But as an engineer, what does that mean for my job? I’m just building yet another login flow, yet another checkout flow, yet another flow to show on a map where something is happening. Quite often we don’t build these flows really, we just integrate with an existing API. The pay is good and it is steady work. But it is mostly just not very exciting.

Maybe this is just where you end up when software is ready to eat the world. Now that we somewhat know how to write software, it is the world eating that is the exciting bit, not the writing of the software. As this process continues, clever bits are needed less and less. Over time tech entrepreneurs will become less technical. When all companies will be software driven at heart, none of them will be tech companies. They’ll just be companies.

I suppose something similar might have happened during the industrial revolution. In the beginning somebody designed a new type of steam engine and thought, this one could be used to pump some water around. And somebody else came along and built one that worked well for cotton spinning. And a third person might build one so small it could drive a train. And sometimes somebody would come up with a clever design that wasn’t better at anything and people would say, that’s a solution looking for a problem.

And then later if you wanted to build a new factory you probably wanted to have a co-founder who understood steam engines in detail. Maybe you wouldn’t build your own steam engine but you’d certainly maintain it. And you’d buy components from different places and combine them in a unique way. But then once the industrial revolution got going in earnest and you would go to your investors and say “we’re disrupting the grain processing industry using steam engines”, they would say, what do you mean, “using steam engines” — how else are you going to build a factory and do your disrupting?

Maybe. Software is so versatile though, so moldable that it feels there’s always room for something completely new, in a way that steam engines never really allowed for. And indeed the internet is full of delightful clever projects that sometimes turn into something bigger and sometimes just get their authors fifteen fame filled minutes on hacker news.

But I’m not ready to give up on the clever bit yet. I’d like to keep tinkering and always be looking for the better steam engine. And I think we should as an industry or whatever tech is now. And if you ever try to recruit me you’d better have an answer to the question “what’s the clever bit?” And similarly if you ever join a project I am working on (and hopefully you will), I hope I will have a convincing answer for that question too.

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Douwe Osinga

Entrepreneur, Coding enthusiast and co-founder of Neptyne, the programmable spreadsheet