Leaving the rat race - Part 1
Recently I got a comment in a brief Twitter discussion that really made me think. I emphasized I think, developers also need to have at least some understanding of the business problems they solve 1. Besides quite some agreement, I also got the following comment (analogously, not literally): “Developers are so busy keeping their IT skills sharp. They do not have time to bother with anything else.”
Whoa, that was a strong comment! I resisted the urge to immediately contradict and let it sink in for a moment. And thinking about it, I realized that it was a very valuable comment – even though I still strongly disagree – as it directly gets to the heart of one of the biggest problems I currently see in the IT domain: FOMO and the resulting rat race.
I think that both FOMO and the rat race are bad things for several reasons and therefore I decided to write down here why I think they are harmful and what we can do about it. While writing, I realized that there is a lot more to discuss than I initially thought (I thought it would become a single short post). Therefore, I split it up in several posts:
- FOMO and the hype industry (this post)
- The lack of real innovation (link will follow)
- The distraction from the actual problems (link will follow)
- Resulting anti-patterns and the actual strength of humans (link will follow)
- Recommendations and summary (link will follow)
Let us get started with the first topic: FOMO.
FOMO - Fear of missing out
Most people in IT live in a constant state of FOMO: Fear of missing out. They live in the constant fear of missing the next big thing, that their knowledge becomes obsolete if they do not constantly try to pick up every “innovation” they hear about, that they lose their market value if they do not, figuratively speaking, run as fast as they can all the time.
And from what I see, this is exactly the perception the IT market fuels all the time:
- IT magazines, monthly, weekly, daily announcing the “next big thing”
- IT conferences, jumping the hype bandwagons faster than any Parkour expert could do
- Job ads, constantly looking for 10 years of deep expertise in technologies that only exist for 2 years
So, the whole IT market feels like running a continuous Red Queen’s race: If you do not run as fast as you can all the time, you will fall behind. At least, that is how it feels for many people in IT.
Of course, this is very stressful for the people affected. I think it is no coincidence that burnout becomes more and more widespread in IT while the perceived “innovation” cycles become shorter all the time.
Taking a step back
But is it really this way? Do we need to run as fast as we can all the time to not fall behind?
Personally, I do not think so.
There are at least four reasons why I think this whole FOMO is futile except maybe for a personal burnout, worse solution design and fostering ever-increasing complexity – which from a professional point of view is everything but desirable.
The four reasons are:
- The hype industry
- The lack of real innovation
- The distraction from the actual problems
- The actual strengths of humans
Let us go through them one by one over the course of this blog series, starting with what I call the “hype industry” in this post.
The desire to increase sales
If you take a step back and watch the IT vanity fair for a while, you start to realize that most of the “innovation you cannot afford to miss” puffery is driven by companies that benefit from the constant FOMO cycle:
- Product vendors who want to sell their products
- Consulting companies who want to sell their services 2
- Training providers who want to sell their trainings
- Publishers who want to sell their books and magazines
- Conference organizers who want to sell tickets and exhibitor space
Probably, we could extend the list quite a bit if we would think about it a bit longer. But the point should be clear:
- There is a multi-billion Euro industry that always wants to grow their business.
- How can they grow their business?
- By increasing demand.
- How can they increase demand?
And here it becomes interesting.
To increase demand,
- you try to attract more customers and
- you try to make your customers want more of the things you offer.
But how do I get this implemented? There are many ways to get this implemented. Still, in the end it usually boils down to two general strategies:
- You provide an offering that matches an existing market demand, i.e., you adopt to the market needs.
- You create a market demand that matches your offering, i.e., you bend the market needs for your own benefit.
As written before: There are many variants of these two fundamental strategies. In an unsaturated market, you tend to find the first strategy more often: Try to understand the needs and demands of the potential customers and attempt to meet them as good as possible. There is enough growth potential for a company in this strategy.
Increasing demand in a saturated market
But what if the market is saturated, if all currently known customer needs are met (which is true for most market situations today)? Basically, the two aforementioned strategies then turn into:
- You come up with an offering that the market perceives better than your competitors' offerings and you take over your competitors' market share.
- You create an artificial demand matching your offering and use this artificial demand to take over your competitors' market share.
These two options are the basic implementations of the aforementioned strategies for a saturated market: Growth is only possible by taking over market shares from the competition, either by outdoing your competition or by redirecting market demand to your own offering.
The first option can sometimes be seen. But it is not easy to implement because it usually requires anticipating hidden, not yet known customer needs.
Creating artificial demand
Thus, the second options feels more promising: Create artificial demand that matches your offering and satisfy it.
Not surprisingly, this is the strategy, we know for many years from most consumer good domains: Flood the customers with ads on TV, radio, billboard, newspaper, magazine, Internet, etc. to create an artificial demand for your offering and then satisfy it. And honestly: Quite often, this strategy works surprisingly well. 3
But this strategy is not only widespread in the domain of consumer goods. You also find it in diverse business contexts – including IT.
IT is quite a big market. A multi-billion Euro industry lives from this market – growing strongly for many years and expecting to grow further in the upcoming years.
Now ask yourself the question: Has that strong growth of the previous years all been organic growth?
If not, how big was the fraction of growth caused by creating artificial demand?
If you think about it for a while, you will come to the conclusion that quite a big share of our market is based on artificial demand.
Of course, we see a lot of essential demand for IT. No doubt. And there are still quite a lot of “digitization” problems that are not yet or just poorly solved. And those problems will not become fewer over time.
But what if we would have focused on those essential problems only that needed to be solved with the help of IT, in the simplest reasonable ways possible? No hypes, no technology fashions, not running after the next silver bullet?
In such a setting where we would have focused only on the essential things that needed to be done, the IT industry would probably be quite a bit smaller today than it is. 4
By implication this means that a big share of the IT demand is not due to essential demand but due to artificially created demand, especially demand created by all kinds of hypes.
The hype industry
Let us for example look at two big hypes of the past 5 years: Microservices and blockchain.
Both were big hypes. Do companies need them to solve their problems? Nope, most companies neither need microservices nor blockchain to solve their IT-related problems (see e.g., my blog series about the microservices fallacy. For virtually all relevant use cases there are simpler options available.
Still, most companies jumped both bandwagons. Why?
Because they suffered from FOMO!
Why did they suffer from FOMO?
Because they and their employees were flooded with “evidence” that microservices and blockchain are a “must-have they cannot afford to miss”:
- Product companies sending the message on all channels that you need microservices and blockchain (and to succeed, you need their products)
- Consulting companies sending the message on all channels that you need microservices and blockchain (and to succeed, you need their consulting services)
- Training companies sending the message on all channels that you need microservices and blockchain (and to succeed, you need their trainings)
- Publishers publishing books and articles about microservices and blockchain (sending the message on all channels that you need their books and magazines to succeed)
- Conference organizers making microservices and blockchain a big topic on their conferences or even organize whole conferences around the topics (sending the message on all channels that you need to attend their conference to succeed)
Often these messages are sent in quite sophisticated ways. E.g., many companies looking for growth above average employ so-called “developer advocates”. These advocates then tend to tell nice and entertaining stories about challenging problems that at first sight are not connected to their employers' offering. But if you take a closer look, you realize their stories and examples are selected in a way that their employers' offering is a “natural” choice to address the problems they talked about. 5
But no matter how bluntly or sophisticatedly all these messages are delivered, together they lead to the same result: Most people get the impression they cannot afford not to go for the topic of interest, here microservices and blockchain, because “everybody is doing it” and “everywhere” you can read and hear how “important” the topic is.
Still, for the largest part all these messages come from a well-oiled “hype industry” (at least that is how I tend to call it) that lives from making you believe that “everybody does it”, that “you cannot afford to miss it”.
In this post we have discussed the omnipresent FOMO, for many of the affected people resulting in the feeling of running a continuous Red Queen’s race.
My personal observation is that this whole FOMO is futile and only leads to a place where we do not want to be. The first reason for this observation is that the biggest part of the alleged “innovation” speed basically is fake, due to an IT hype industry trying to create artificial demand it benefits from.
Just to be perfectly clear: For me the hype industry is not “evil” or anything along these lines (maybe some of the participating companies are but that would be a different story). The hype industry is the result of a systemic evolution, not a deliberate “evil” decision of people working in those companies. It is the result of an evolution over many years and basically simply describes how the “game” IT is “played” today. Not more. Not less.
Thus, for me the hype industry is neither good nor bad. It just is. Still, the effects of this systemic evolution are detrimental for quite some of the affected people. Hence, I think it is important to understand the drivers and mechanisms behind that evolution.
Understanding this evolution and its effects helps you to stay a lot more relaxed the next time someone comes along, telling you in an urgent voice that you “cannot afford to miss …”. You will realize that most of the time they do not care about you. They care about their interests and you are their prey. Or they are someone who already fell for it.
Finally, the things we actually “cannot afford to miss” are a lot fewer than we think. This will the topic of the next post (link will follow): The lack of real innovation. Stay tuned … ;)
The reasons why I think this is important are beyond the scope of this post. An explanation would take at least a whole post on its own. I only mention it here to illustrate the context of the comment that made me think. ↩︎
Yes, I also work for a consulting company. So, maybe I should not tell you all this … :) … but frankly, I do not want to make my money with selling FOMO. I rather want to improve lives if I can, not make them worse. Still, it is perfectly fine if you are cautious. After all, I am a consultant. Thus, in case of doubt test my services and if you are not convinced, do not hire me. ↩︎
Even if this description may sound quite negative, I am neither a friend nor an enemy of that strategy. Leaving aside despicable dark patterns in marketing and advertisement for a moment, I think it is up to the customers targeted by those strategies to recognize them and decide if they want to respond to them or not. ↩︎
My personal estimation is that the IT domain would be between half its current size and an order of magnitude smaller if we would have focused on essential needs only. But that is just an “educated guess”. ↩︎
Do not get me wrong: I know quite some developer advocates. I like many of them and I have deep respect for most of them. Being a developer advocate is everything but an easy job. Still, as relatable they might be and as enjoyable their stories might be, they are paid by their employers. And their employers do not pay them for just telling nice stories. They expect their developer advocates to boost sales. They want their developer advocates to influence developers that they in turn will influence their managers to buy the “right” product. Therefore, my recommendation is: Enjoy the stories they tell. Really, do it! Very often, they are great story tellers (in the best imaginable way). But always keep in mind that they are employed by a company that has clear expectations regarding the outcome of their work. ↩︎