Blog: Handcrafted software and the AI revolution
“Every company will be a software company”
This was said to me recently by a senior engineer working at a well-known software company.
I don’t know why, but that statement really bothered me. As a recovering software engineer, I know where that statement came from. While it was partially correct, I wondered if telephone or electrical engineers expressed the same sentiment back in the day.
And, yet, it was something more profoundly bothersome about it. Not just the arrogance of it — which, as an aside, is part of the root cause behind the current techlash — but also how someone who spends their day handcrafting a product could believe that.
Yes, handcrafting. Because, fundamentally, all software is still a handcrafted product, even though pretty much nobody will acknowledge this fact. It isn’t really ‘engineered’ as such since it is largely hand-written by reams of humans. No one calls novelists ‘text engineers’ after all.
And those very software ‘engineers’ handcrafting the basis of much of the modern world are generally the most expensive part of a company’s technology operations. Because of this, every management team spends inordinate amounts of time either trying to find ways to increase margins to cover this growing cost or reduce it all together (offshoring, outsourcing, SaaS, open source, etc). And the lack of software craftsman is creating a serious drag on a lot of companies. Off course, we are currently in a (temporary) feedback loop where software is increasing efficiencies, easily offsetting these costs, but once the knowledge to do this is commoditized, that advantage will disappear. Luckily, these very software craftsman are crafting a solution to this problem in the form of artificial intelligence.
AI is a tool that will make handcrafted software obsolete by turning software into a mass-produced industrial, commodity product.
You already see this in modern integrated development environments, which use predictive tools to figure out what class, function, variable, etc you need next. While recently writing a new iOS application, there was very little thinking I needed to do or knowledge needed as Apple’s Xcode was anticipating 90% of what I was typing…
Going back to ‘every company will a software company’, there is delicious irony in the fact that the software craftsman are likely to be the first affected by AI, turning their carefully handcrafted work product into the industrial, manufactured commodity that everybody wants, without the cost of handcrafting it.
After all, that’s what happened 200 years ago to cotton spinners and in the 1970s to manual machinists. AI writing software might possibly be the biggest revolution of all, putting an entire, highly paid and educated class out of work. Who said history doesn’t repeat itself?