Only in America

The remarkable ascendancy of China and India as high-tech powerhouses has illuminated a non-obvious but profound truth: The United States remains the best place in the world for high-end software development.   Despite widespread economic pessimism and rumors of a global power shift, talk of across the board decline is ill-founded.  When it comes to software, American exceptionalism is alive and well.  The first secret to our dominance is our engineers.  To anyone familiar with the basic mechanisms of software development, this is really no secret at all.  What is more surprising is how much our engineering culture owes to the heartland.  While our software industry may be concentrated among the coastal elites, the ethos that makes it possible was largely forged in the wheat fields and corn rows of the Midwest.  Properly applied, it is this ethos that will see us through current uncertainties and solidify our place at the top for generations to come.

 “Global” does not equate to “world-class”, and there is no better illustration of this than the booming software industries of China and India.  This is a period of unprecedented growth and opportunity - certainly compared to the landscape my own father faced when he left Tamil Nadu a generation ago.  At the same time, per-capita income in India is less than half of China’s, itself a seventh of that enjoyed in the United States.  Yet income disparity is merely a symptom of a larger trend: for all the high-tech jobs created in the past decade, China, India (and the rest of the developing world, for that matter) have yet to produce their own Microsoft, Oracle, or Google.  Instead, “body shops” offering outsourced IT services and low-end development are the rule.  On the value spectrum, such businesses are the equivalent of the call centers that now symbolize the tremendous growth and equally tremendous limitations of the new global economy.

When software development is a process of manufacturing, not invention, the resulting products are commodities, and the same holds true for software engineers.  This is the crux of the issue: great software is not a commodity, but a highly evolutionary thing, and great engineers are irreplaceable, not interchangeable.  The relative talents of software engineers, and the elegance of their output, lie on an exponential, not linear, scale.  The difference between the very top and the median is not 30%, not 300%, but rather 10,000%.  Of course, this phenomenon is not only illustrated by the IT factories of Bangalore and Shanghai.  Plenty of American tech companies persist in believing that an arbitrary number of decent software engineers equals one savant.

However, the creation of a high-end software industry requires more than just top technical talent.  In the absence of the right environment, innately gifted engineers will either flee or toil in obscurity.  This environment must be supportive of personal aspirations, while remaining a firm meritocracy in which the best idea wins.  A sense of fairness must prevail, especially as it relates to competitive marketplaces, respect for intellectual property, and recognizing top individual contributors while promoting a spirit of teamwork and cooperation.  Most importantly, new talent is attracted to this environment by the promise of just opportunity, not a pre-ordained lot in life.  These are the essential Midwestern values that drew the first homesteaders inland from the American colonies, sustained a young Thomas Edison through countless early failures, and, in our own century, have given rise to the greatest icons of the knowledge economy.

All of this helps to explain why, despite tremendous advances in technical education throughout Asia (and comparative stagnation in our own system), the United States continues to be the epicenter of world-class software development.  This is not meant to suggest that the recent educational achievements of Asia are anything less than remarkable.  However, the best measure of these achievements is not the number (or lack) of new Googles springing up across the Pacific, but rather the influx of highly qualified Asian engineers and students seeking opportunity in top American companies and universities.  China and India have succeeded admirably in creating cultures of productivity, yet a culture of invention remains elusive. The upshot, for American software leaders, is a workforce that is much more diverse than it is often gets credit for.  Ironically, it is the native Midwesterner that is often absent from the popular perception of what a software company looks like – but we should remember that the first Midwestern settlers were primarily immigrants themselves.

While panic and pessimism are not appropriate reactions to our changing world, neither is taking our dominance and innovation for granted.  Instead, we should consider what our values have to teach us in light of certain austerity.  Our forebears, facing similar challenges, learned to do more with less. Happily, this concept applies better to software than to almost anything else.  Moore’s Law states that computing power doubles roughly every two years.  Given the ingenuity of our software developers, we should absolutely demand twice the performance for half the cost when it comes to IT infrastructure for healthcare, defense, treasury, and other mission-critical departments.  It is not enough to slash underperforming programs (and they are legion) without making concurrent investments in world-class technology.  This may seem counter-intuitive given our shrinking budgets, but we can only achieve the efficiency and productivity gains required by thinking in terms of value as well as cost. We must reward our top producers, but only while demanding their very best efforts. 

The unique software engineering culture of Silicon Valley may simply be the most recent manifestation of America’s pioneer values. However, it is these enduring values, more than any technical achievement, which will ensure America’s continuing dominance of the software world in a time of global change.