THE BLOG
08/26/2014 05:14 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2014

Code Junkies, Mega-Software and the Decline of American Innovation

I once read that writing clear specifications for software was a good idea and that not having them would be like not having architectural blueprints for a building project. And blueprints don't make buildings, right?

But what if they could?

What if there was a way for business people to use languages they understand to command technology to get things done? Why condemn business people to the endless task of thinking up software requirements for functionality they won't see for 18 months, while Rome - or their business - burns around them?

What if there was a kind of thinkware - not just 'software' - that could make decisions with us and understand critical imperatives? What if we could go right from model to reality and replace obligatory maintenance with opportunistic innovation? Captain Picard demanded of his futuristic Star Trek computer: "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot." Exactly. But our economy needs more than a hot cup of tea. It needs to tap into the best minds of our current generation and bring their great ideas to life faster. It needs to learn in real-time, and to grow virally and organically, adapting to the only thing we can truly count on - change.

Once mankind can drive their goals and intentions directly into technology, we would see a surge of innovation. It would disrupt business as normal and decimate the organizational silos that prevent organizations from seeing their customers in real-time. The great news is that the technology is here today. So why hasn't it happened?

The answer is that there is a global conspiracy afoot. Large software mega-vendors are making way too much mega-money for maintenance and actively suppress new generations of code-free business software. Frankly, they strive to perpetuate our addiction to software coding.

So they feed us placebos. The first placebo is outsourcing, or in other words moving trouble from my backyard to my lower-waged neighbor's backyard. Will that fix the problem? Hardly. It just kicks the innovation can down the road. The next placebo is the Cloud. We all love the Cloud until we add up the hidden carbon tax associated with replicating zigabytes of data everywhere. The problem with the Cloud is that while things get started faster, people must still write code to make changes to how their products are made and brought to market. Another placebo is SaaS or software as a service. Unfortunately to make software into a service, potential innovation is restricted to changing mere aesthetics. In other words, SaaS for enterprise businesses has come to mean the lowest-common denominator business. If we all use the same sales automation as a service, who has the edge?

Placebos aside, the status quo is code, and lots of it. Ruby on Rails, C#, and the mother of all code demons - Javascript. But no one can keep up with business change if they need an army of code jockeys speaking a specialized language, requiring interpreters to join them for every business meeting.

Some business people like it this way. They have somehow insulated themselves from the hot breath of their shareholders on the backs of their necks and prefer to be able to blame IT. IT, on the other hand, gets permanent employment. There are more people who speak Klingon than know COBOL. It is time to knock down the wall between business and IT and make both accountable for business outcomes. Spiraling health care costs and Medicare fraud in America demands it. Broken and subprime loans and bad foreclosures in our mortgage system demand it. The government agencies that are being driven by social media to become more responsive to their constituents' needs demand it. Today's connected consumers expect their opinions and preferences to define the products they really want, and are prepared to vote with their wallets.

Now, I was trained as an engineer and am obscenely passionate about software, but I am more passionate about what software can - and should -- do. After thirty years of asking these questions in the software company I started years ago, I have come to the conclusion that unless software code can keep up with the business, it will just get in the way. Why should we ask business people to detail all the potential ifs and thens when what they really want to do is think on their feet, adapt to the unexpected, and take care of business?

A new kind of thinkware is needed, one that allows business people to simply draw out their processes, set their goals, and state unequivocally what constitutes a proper outcome. The industry knows it has a problem, and wants to replace manual code with higher level business models (see for example http://www.omg.org/mda/), but many of these attempts are so deeply rooted in the coding fraternity that code is merely reduced and not eliminated. . I count myself as a purist and have lived
through too many of the failed attempts to not insist that businesses should be 100% code-free zones.

The good news is that there are enough examples of almost perfect business-friendly applications to say with confidence that the days of manual coding are numbered. The bad news is that attitudes are not progressing and that the global conspiracy is stronger than ever. There are vested interests in perpetuating our codependent relationship with manual coding. We spend too much maintaining existing software systems that don't do what we want, and too little on new business innovation.

What we need to do now is change our expectations. Starting today, don't take code for an answer. Just say "no" to code. Our business people are capable of creating massive waves of growth, productivity and innovation - if we let them.