July 1, 2019
In 2011, software pioneer Marc Andreessen wrote an essay titled “Why Software is Eating the World,” which was published in The Wall Street Journal and met with much agreement among the technorati and established businesses at the time. It was one of the first highly publicized arguments that the relatively “new” technology companies were not only here to stay, but here to disrupt the old guard with software.
I hesitate to follow his “eating the world” analogy to its inevitable digestive end. What would that eventually make the world? Still, there’s no arguing with the fact that software is a critical competitive advantage for companies and the products they create.
As Andreessen wrote eight years ago: “Over the next 10 years, the battles between incumbents and software-powered insurgents will be epic.” Indeed they are, with some incumbents being acquired—or simply made obsolete—others acquiring the insurgents, and some still battling.
A similar fight is being waged at the product level, with mechanical and electrical engineers being overrun with requests for more and more software integration. But that war can’t be won with acquisition. There simply isn’t enough talent to acquire.
Andreessen noted the skills gap as a challenge in 2011, saying every company he works with is “absolutely starved for talent,” adding to his culinary metaphors. Perhaps he was writing on an empty stomach. “This problem is even worse than it looks because many workers in existing industries will be stranded on the wrong side of software-based disruption and may never be able to work in their fields again,” he continued. “There’s no way through this problem other than education, and we have a long way to go.”
Adding to the Menu
At the Siemens Realize LIVE event in Detroit last month, the CEO of a software company took the stage to explain an alternative solution to the long, slow approach of educating more software coders. Derek Roos, CEO of Mendix, said large enterprises were facing a “huge crisis” as they try to integrate software and embrace digital transformation.
Software engineers don’t speak the same language as other engineers, much less colleagues outside the engineering department. That makes integration a difficult task with no obvious solution. Looking beyond the obvious led Roos and his team on a path to bridge business, engineering and IT.
Their idea was to create a visual software language anyone can understand, which would not only solve the communication gap, but help address the software developer resource issue. “That’s what we set out to do,” he said. “That’s what became the Mendix platform.”
Mendix was acquired by Siemens AG less than a year ago, and the company has already begun integrating Mendix’s low-code solutions into its software, specifically MindSphere. Mendix for MindSphere promises to make it faster and easier to develop industrial Internet of Things apps, allow more people to participate in the process, and enhance business and IT collaboration. That seems like just the tip of the iceberg.
Eat with Your Eyes
Many mechanical and electrical engineers already know how to code somewhat. But writing a subroutine for a specific issue in your own work is a far cry from developing software that will be deployed in a system or a consumer-facing app.
Those who don’t want to end up “on the wrong side of software-based disruption,” as Andreessen put it, would do well to look into low-code software development platforms. Mendix and its competitors promise to make some software development tasks as easy as dragging and dropping visual representations of what you want software to do in the order you want it to do them.
Like templates and apps that make complex simulation tasks easier for non-experts, low-code/no-code software development solutions are facing the same questions. Are we ‘dumbing down’ critical tasks? Who creates (and checks) the automated approach? Education is one solution, but developing technology to solve the challenges of new technology is another. Either way, those challenges are being addressed one bite at a time.