Five steps to joining the software rat-race

Ah, the 'knowledge economy' - an El Dorado where the spreadsheets are paved with gold and the outlook through every window is couscous and houris.

Ah, the "knowledge economy" - an El Dorado where the spreadsheets are paved with gold and the outlook through every window is couscous and houris. When the editor asked me to write an inaugural Computerworld column on this topic from the software developer's perspective, I hesitated: after all, the old rule is that if you have nothing nice to say, say it somewhere else ... And I don't have much to say about the software industry that anyone could describe as "nice"; in the last 10 years, software has made any other rat-race look like Fiordland National Park. The editor, however, is inflexible (as is the way of editors). So, rather than boring you with tedious gems of distilled wisdom from my 15 years as a software developer, I thought I would bore you with five "aphorisms for the knowledge economy" instead.

Aphorism #1: Forget about "The Idea" Most people starting out in the software industry have the ridiculous belief that all you need in order to succeed is a good idea: this notion is absurd. You need a lot of money, some very carefully-chosen staff tied to you by bonds that cannot be broken, and a very good lawyer. "The Idea" is basically irrelevant: if you don't meet these three criteria, then a larger company will come and take your idea from you anyway, and once you're large enough yourself, you can simply take someone else's idea and run with it. This is a proven, successful business model, and you can't fail by following it.

Aphorism #2: Consider relocating to California Remember I mentioned some "carefully-chosen staff" in the preceding section? The chances are quite good that you might be able to find some in New Zealand, because we're actually a deceptively clever little nation; but you won't be able to keep them. The lure of the almighty US dollar is too great, especially when the people you most need are probably so stooped with unbearable student debt that they can't afford to stay here anyway. Add to this a succession of governments that evidently think business is worthless, and you have very little reason to establish yourself in New Zealand: consider moving to The Valley instead - if nothing else, there are all those cool Fry's Electronics stores you can lose yourself in for days at a time.

Aphorism #3: Don't expect any support Unless you're the All Blacks, the average New Zealander will not take any notice of you until you have already succeeded overseas. This is the way of the nation - it's a cruel variant of tall poppy syndrome, where we don't support the people who are striving to better themselves and their country when they're on the way up, but have no hesitation at all in claiming the credit or knocking them down once they make it. In the case of software, there's also this peculiar idea that unless the product has been developed in the US, it can't be any good (see Aphorism #2).

Aphorism #4: The law is no obstacle Don't hesitate to push the law as far as it will go: heck, fracture a few laws in the course of your drive for success - it really doesn't matter. The legal system moves at a glacial pace by comparison with the software industry and clearly has no real conception of the issues involved. By the time the DOJ or its equivalent has actually managed to start any kind of action against you, you will already have gone through a dozen iterations of your product, sold the company to a larger competitor, and moved to a non-extradition country with the proceeds of your IPO. Even if they do manage to get in your way with their petty legal wrangling, all you need is a good lawyer (see Aphorism #1) and you can tie them up in knots for decades. Spurious or marginal legal action is also a wonderful way of crippling or destroying a smaller competitor - this is a favourite technique in the computer industry and you should give it strong consideration as your major software development tool.

Aphorism #5: Promotion, promotion and promotion The Three P's of software development. Advertise your product mercilessly - make whatever claims you think will help it to sell (see Aphorism #4). If possible, try to claim a patent on some portion of your program - it doesn't matter how questionable it might be. If you follow these steps, then you'll be able to launch with a huge IPO or sell to a major corporation, without actually having written any code at all. Incredibly enough, after all these years of misleading advertising, missed deadlines and abandoned products, the industry still WANTS to believe you.

No doubt some of you reading this article think I'm trying to be droll or sarcastic - and of course, you're right ... to a certain extent. But the fact is that there is a seed of truth in all these aphorisms and I encourage you to read them again to find it. Remember, this is your industry too, so be a tidy Kiwi, don't litter, and don't leave town until you've seen the country.

Harris is the Dunedin-based developer of internet email software Pegasus Mail. Email him at

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