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Developer Ecosystems Come of Age

August 09, 2017


Add one more label to the current digital landscape: The Age of Developers. At least that’s what Google’s VP Product Management, Sam Ramji, believes.

Software development can sometimes seem kind of “magical,” Ramji said at the recent 2017 MIT Platform Strategy Summit. In fact,  “We’re at a moment where we can see developer ecosystems taking root and having an impact. From a developer standpoint, this is certainly the best time in history. Our craft is respected. We’re in an era of rising demand, and it’s only getting better.”

At an event touting the Age of Platforms, Ramji was an enthusiastic proponent of software developers and their huge role in platform design and implementation. The field of software development is expanding dramatically thanks to “people who use code to produce meaningful outcomes.” They are also a generally positive, curious community, and according to Stack Overflow, 94 percent are at least partially self-taught. Nearly the same number, 87 percent, enjoy learning new technology, Ramji said.

The clear message for business leaders is to recognize these trends to attract strong software talent and to keep them happy.

Creating New Network Effects

In the platform arena, Ramji said that developers represent one essential side of a multi-sided market. And that causes its own network effects, because “developers network among themselves and you have to manage that differently.”

Platform businesses are defined by the availability of high-quality third-party content that brings in new consumers and new content producers, he explained. “We have to enable developers to build high-quality content. Apple’s done a wonderful job of this, starting in 2007 with Xcode, with the app store, and with an arduous acceptance process to make sure content was generally of high quality.”

For many businesses, however, it’s difficult to make the mental leap from programmers who worked on mainframes and PCs a few decades ago, to the high status developers seem to have earned today. Ramji noted that even when he started his career in 1994, “there was no way to imagine this; there were lines to get jobs.”

 Platform Revolution book authors Geoffrey Parker, Marshall Van Alstyne and Sangeet Choudary, laid the groundwork for understanding the nature of platforms and developers, according to Ramji, when they wrote: “Firms that pursue high-risk innovations with more developers can be more profitable than firms that pursue low-risk innovations with few developers.”  With platforms, you can move innovation outside of the firm and lose the capital risk.

Moreover, the classic product pyramid defined corporate structure for most of the 20th-Century. Businesses held the power, customer intimacy, and pricing control. Today, good platform companies are inverted pyramids. “They’re held in place, and they grow by the massive weight of a very profitable ecosystem that stacks on top of them.” 

And these ecosystems and platforms all have developers on one side. Developers are building products, adding value to resellers, consulting, and meeting the final form demanded by the customer.

Coming from “a 20th-century mindset, this inversion seems insane,” because businesses –especially market leaders–stand to lose customer control and industry clout. With platform APIs, however, “every time a customer uses something built by a third-party developer, the data comes back to you, and depending on your business model the revenue can come back to you as well,” Ramji said.

The Power of Developer Networks

In addition, when more developers join an open-source platform, the more they will generally share code and create open-source frameworks. “If you permit and enable that, it can flourish,” he told attendees.

Development cycles are accelerating at unprecedented speed, too. Instead of learning your platform for a year, a new developer can be productive in a week. And at many hackathons, they become productive in half a day.

Ramji described three major components of platform development he sees emerging: open source, open development, and community.

  • Open source is a modern developer’s basic expectation. It’s how source code is licensed; and how it is changed. “The more that we enable open source in our platforms, the more developers can benefit.”
  • Open development could restrict control from developers, to improve efficiency, and to mandate a certain set of outcomes. But the pressure from developers is breaking apart pipelines into a transitional state where we now have an explosion of third party, Internet based, open-sourced, code- controlled systems. “Make sure that your platforms work well with a range of these systems.”
  • To focus on community, focus on your people. We’re entering an era where empathy is a competitive advantage. Developers have agency, they have choice, interest, and values. “You can elevate them or you can let them down.”

 Ramji made the point that developer-driven platforms can lead to exponential growth, but it’s up to businesses to take advantage of this powerful new resource.


Watch the full video on You Tube here.