Another trap for developers: the Bill Gates Syndrome

Every month I got a phone call like this:

<John Doe> Hello Kico!
<John Doe> Its me, John Doe, how are you?
<Kico> Wow! It’s been a long time! How are you?
<John Doe> Man, I’m great, and now I have a great idea for a new business, and you are the one I need to implement it!
<Kico> Sure… again???
<John Doe> Yep! But this time things will be rather different!
<Kico> Well, let’s see it…

And believe me: John Doe is not a single guy… and talk after talk, just by “accident” I’ll all his dreams with simple questions like: “what about your business plan? Did you wrote one?” or “and how will you finance this thing?” or the worst question of all: “who will want it?”. Of course, at this moment, he will forget about that marvelous idea, but after some time he will call me again.

It’s one of the worsts developer illusions: there’s no easy way to get rich.

It’s usual to see a lot of people starting to get interest on software development based on this illusion. And what is more interesting: money on these cases lost it’s real meaning: as Aristotle used to say between 384bC and 322 bC: “money is a meaning, not and ending”. But even more than two thousand years after, people still don’t get it! Money still is seen as the main goal of everything. And here comes what I call one of the worsts developer traps of all the time: the Bill Gates syndrome:

Just because the wealthiest man on the world get rich with software, it doesn’t mean you are going to be rich too! Based on what the media says, maybe you think you will. But believe me, based on the four main arguments shown by them, you wont. The main arguments are:

  • Software development is easy! (“look at Bill Gates! A wacky guy wich got billionary just doing that!”)
  • If your idea is great, people will buy it (“you won’t need a business plan! People will be running after you!”). You just need to be inspired.
  • Build your software, throw it on the Internet and it’s done. It will be a hit!
  • A true genius never is understood at the beginning. Just after!

I’m sorry to tell you, but these four arguments are pure bullshit! So, let’s take a deeper look at them.

“Software development is easy”

Well, if t’s so easy, why most software development projects fail? If it’s so easy, why isn’t everybody coding and designing new software? Why just very few are doing this at this present moment? If it’s really so easy, why botther creating graduation courses like Computer Sciences?

Believe me: software development is hard. It’s not something that everyone can do. It’s easier than it was at the 80s? Yes, we have better tools, but the world is way more complex than it used to be back then. Please, don’t fool yourself with this bullshit.

“If your idea is really great, people will buy it!”

Sure! And you don’t even need a business plan right? How can people know what they really need if they don’t know what they need?

(here we can see the level of arrogance of these people. Just because you solved YOUR problem, it doesn’t mean it will solve everyone else problem!)

If something is going to be successfull, it have to be really well designed. It’s necessary to have a business plan, knowing every single risk. Who are your suppliers and competitors? Who will want your product? Usually, by making these questions, the “future billionaire” starts to feel a little sadness while we talk. And here comes the worst part: usually this “future billionaire” doesn’t even know how do describe his new amazing product!

Here comes my “kiconian” theorem: if you can’t describe something in words, you just don’t know it at all. The prove is simple: if you know something, you also know the vocabulary wich surrounds it and the relationship between the terms involved. If you don’t, there are just two options:

a) Your idea sucks
b) Your idea is still on development (so it still sucks)

“Build your software, throw it on the Internet and it will be a hit”

People really think that just because something is on the Internet, everyone will see it. By doing that they just forget that you have to know at least two things: how to divulge it and, even more important: how to deal with the feedback it may have! I’m the living proof that this argument is false. Here is my story:

In 1999 I wrote my first piece of software, wich was called MatMaker. It was a tool for primary and middle school students wich may have problems solving math exercises. For my surprise, it was a hit! Suddenly I was cited on several academic papers. By throwing it on the Intenet, of course I wanted to make a buck. The strategy was: public schools whould never need to pay a dime for the software, but private ones should. Well, what I got from it? Monetarily speaking: nothing. Just some experience (some (some (some))). For years this software was widely used and I never got a single penny for it. But at least it helped a lot of people, wich already pays for itself.

In 2001 I needed to send lot’s of e-mails to the users of MatMaker, so I wrote another piece of software called KMala. Since it was built just to solve my problem, I thought that maybe it could be usefull for someone else, so, again, I just made it available to everyone, for free on my website at the time. Well, for my surprise, it just got popular. Lot’s of people wrote back to me asking how much does it cost and my answer was always the same: “nothing. It’s free. If it solve your problem to, it’s fine for me”.

Well: another surprise: someone started selling the software (and this someone was not me). How it was 2001, several ISPs started to change how their SMTPs and POP3s servers worked. As a consequence, KMala just stoped working. How I didn’t know that at the time (it was working just fine for me), it was just ok. But suddenly my inbox was full with complaints of people wich actually bought the software threatening to sue me if I don’t fix it. It tooked YEARS for me to clean my name and show those persons that I actually NEVER sold this software to ANYONE.

(important detail: for my horror, a good fraction of Brazil’s spam at the time was sent using this software)

As you can see, I’m a good example that this argument doesn’t work at all. In both cases, it was a hit. The problem was: I didn’t knew how to deal with the feedback.

A true genius is never understood at the beginning. Just after!

This is a cruel argument. So, to kill it, just take a look at the pictures of these guys:

Steve Jobs e Steve Wozniack

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniack

Kevin Rose, founder of the Digg

Mark Zuckerberg, fundador do FaceBook

Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of FaceBook

Looking at those pictures, we can find a pattern: the illusion that the guys wich are getting billionaires are just developers like you and me. You got the illusion that at the first moment they were completely ignored, but later, given their geniality, they just triumphed over those who ignored them right? Wrong!

They’re actually just the public face of their companies! Who at the beginning do you really think managed the business? Do you really think that Steve Jobs was the only responsible for every single aspect of Apple administration at that time? Of course not! Let’s face it: it’s too naive to think that way. Behind those people there’s actually lot’s of highly skilled executives and venture capitalists wich REALLY manage their companies. Without them, believe-me: there whould be no Microsoft, Apple, Facebook or any other.

Ask yourself: if you are starting a new company, why make it’s public face someone wich doesn’t appear to have any business experience at all? The answer is: because it’s all about marketing. The target audience is you, the developer. They want you to think: “Hey! if they did it! I can do it by myself too!”.

Notice that behind every one of these “leaders”, the product its actually a platform. A platform wich you may enrich by adding new functionality with your software. You may of course make some money with it. But believe me: who really makes the big buck is not you.

So, I’m sorry if I just destroyed one more of your illusions.

Conclusion

Getting rich is not easy. And if you really see money as your goal, well… sorry to tell you. But you are an idiot. Money is only the medium, not the goal. And, after all, when you die, what really matters it’s not the money you made. It’s what YOU made with it stupid!

Software development is extremely difficult. If you just get into how these people really got all their money, you’ll find a lot of work, uncountable frustrations and a huge amount of stress. Nothing is easy. The only thing they all share in common consist in their perserverance.

And where does this perserverance comes from? From their real love to their jobs! You got to be deeply in love with what you do if you REALLY want to make something that matters. You have to wake up, brush your teeths, eat, walk, sleep thinking about what you’re doing. Not as a punishment, but as the main goal of your life, at least at that moment. It must be almost like a sexual experience when you are working. If not, believe me, you’re screwed.

Only if your fathers are extremely rich you’ll get rich in an easy way. If not, sorry to tell you again: it’s going to be a rocky road!

11 thoughts on “Another trap for developers: the Bill Gates Syndrome

  1. Some excellent comments and insights. A few very brief comments, based on 40 years in the computer industry:
    1. VERY few people who pursue software development “to get rich”, do so.
    2. It’s not software development that is the key; it’s having an innovative idea that others find valuable – and implementing it – that can create success.
    3. I have found that success is best-defined in terms of personal joy and satisfaction; NOT in terms of moneymoneymoney. I’ve known MANY people who were wealthy … and miserable!
    4. Designing and imlpementing software (software development) CAN be exciting, enjoyable and satisfying, simply by its doing – and often also be profitable, reasonably so although not excessively so.
    5. Most of the most successful software developers I’ve known – some of whom DID start out very much “not rich” – have a good idea, but then MOST of their success was due to their expending tremendous amounts of time, energy and diligence … to create the program of their dreams. It is NOT for the lazy person, nor the get-rich-quick dreamer!

    Best wishes to those who pursue such adventures!

    –jim, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Warren

  2. I liked the posting except for the last point. I seems a bit like conspiracy theory.
    I think people like Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates and all the other were smart people, also on the business side. The people you mention like ‘smart venture capitalists’ , ‘entrepreneurs’ are highly overrated, they’re just accountants or people how invest money. They often don’t have any vision and are often not that smart – I think the current economic crisis has demonstrated that.
    Besides being smart, the another very important feature is being determined and naturally having a lot of luck.

  3. @Gerbrand, Well Gerbrand, here comes the following question: does these founders had at the time they created their companies experience in management? Well, in the most part, no.

    So, in this scenario, those executives (I must admit: I don’t like people in suits. Not at all!) are the ones wich really are driving these companies (at least in the first moment). That’s the truth. Take Apple for instance: behind Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniack there was Mike Markulla, and the same goes for many other ones wich today are just huge.

    You’re right about the vision: these “guys in suits” don’t have ANY vision at all. But they can smell when something is going to generate profit. And that’s how they emerge. It’s a fact.

    The problem is, how you said, when these guys are in charge of everything (and your example, about the global economy is just perfect). That’s where the danger is!

    Thanks for your comments!

  4. Having been a 13 year employee at Microsoft starting in 1983, I was one of the lucky ones, but you’re right – it aint gonna happen for most people. A couple of points:

    The people who it DID happen for didn’t get into it for the money in general. I took a pay cut to go to Microsoft because I loved writing software. They told me about something called “options” which I dismissed immediately as being of no value. If you do something you aren’t passionate about solely to make money, chances are you’re going to either hate your life or (more likely) fail at it.

    Also, I disagree about it being easier to write software today. When I got into the business, you could read/understand everything there was to know about BIOS and DOS which were really about the only two things worth knowing. All of BIOS was about 30 pages of source code in the back of the “IBM PC Technical Reference”. DOS was essentially an SDK with something like 30 routines that you could call. There’s no way you could know everything going on with the complex software environment we work in today. Yes, we’ve got better tools but they are small comfort compared to the amount you need to know these days even to specialize in one (relatively) small area like .NET. Life is SOOO much more complicated these days. That’s a good thing in my opinion – lots more to do and learn and more power, but “simpler” it aint.

  5. Ah – new that I reread some of your post, I may have misinterpreted your take on ease of writing software today vs. the 80s. You ask the rhetorical quesion “Is it easier to write software than in the 80s” and in the next sentence, the first word is “Yes” but now that I reread it may be that the “Yes” may be in reference to “we do have better tools”. So anyway, if that was your meaning, then I guess we’re pretty much in exact agreement on that point.

    While I’m at it, I’ll also say that intelligence is not a necessary and sufficient qualification for making some money in the business, but it is pretty much a necessary prerequisite. Those marketers you speak of were hired by who? Oh yeah, the guys whose pictures you show. They were smart enough to hire good people to do the marketing. Also, I think that in most of these cases, to claim that these people didn’t have good business heads as well as technical ones is not correct. Bill started up a really successful business at 13 without venture capital or marketers. These were not just miscellaneous John Does on the street who happened to meet good ad men. Technical intelligence does count, but it’s not the only thing that counts.

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