Software Literacy: Cracking the Code

This summer my dad organized a first annual “Stiefler Guys Trip” that included me, my three brothers (ages 27, 25 and 22), and my three-year-old son. We rented a house in Telluride, Colorado, and spent a week hiking, biking, taking Jeep tours of old abandoned gold mines, and lots of other very cool stuff. We may also have drunk some beer and watched “Caddyshack” for the hundredth time (after my son went to bed, I promise). It was a heckuva lot of fun and we’re hoping to make it an annual tradition.

Computer science Funnily enough, though, the thing that has stuck with me most about that trip is a debate that started when I told my youngest brother, who just started his senior year of college, that he should take the opportunity to take a few introductory computer science classes. My 27-year-old brother jumped in, agreeing emphatically.

“Why?” the young one asked incredulously. “I don’t have any interest in being a computer programmer. Plus, you guys are plenty successful and you don’t know a thing about programming.”

I was forced to admit that this was true—at least, the part about me not knowing programming from bird watching. But I also told him I consider that ignorance to be a huge liability, and one that will only become more problematic with time.

My dad, who helps advise companies in the online finance space, and yet can barely turn on a computer, got interested at this point. “Yeah, Todd. As long as you understand people and strategy you can lead a product line, a business or a company. You don’t have to be able to make the sausage.” My dad is a great guy and has a great perspective on business…He’s the one we all go to in the family for personal and career advice. I don’t normally take the opposite side of an argument from him and, when I do, I tend to lose. Nevertheless, I thought it was worth pushing the point.

Simply put, I made two arguments: 1) Most businesses in the near future will, to one extent or another, be software businesses; and 2) It’s really hard to lead a software business when you don’t know anything at all about software.

To the first point, the number of businesses that are not, in some significant way, software-driven is shrinking dramatically, and that trend will only accelerate. Sure, an increasing portion of global GDP is being provided by pure software companies like Amazon, Google and eBay. But, in the era of the Industrial Internet, even our most physically imposing hardware is going to be producing valuable data that will be captured, stored and analyzed by software in order to provide value to the OEM, the operator, the customer, the government and other stakeholders.

In this new world, companies like GE are forging their competitive advantages in agile teams as much as on the assembly line. A sign in our new $1B Software Center of Excellence in Silicon Valley points out that GE is currently the 14th largest software company in the world, and that we’re poised to grow to 10th largest in a few short years. Our customers don’t just want to buy hardware from us anymore—they want the software that helps them operate and maintain that hardware in the most efficient way possible. As market competition forces growing convergence of hardware solutions, it’s in the area of software that industrial companies like GE are trying to distinguish themselves in the eyes of customers. And you could say the same thing about banks, retail outlets, and even car makers.

F-35 Joint Strike FighterThe military, of course, won’t be any different. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has over 8 million lines of code which, I gather from the internet, is quite a lot. The U.S. Defense Department has built vast repositories for storing the data that come off the equipment on their tanks, planes and ships and is looking to vendors like GE to help them make sense of it all. And soldiers on the battlefield are using smartphone apps to perform functions that used to require radios, paper maps, and a diverse array of other analog and digital equipment.

This first point doesn’t tend to get much pushback, as keen observers see software transforming every industry. The more contentious point in our rental house proved to be the second—that “leaving software to the experts” wasn’t going to be a tenable position for leaders and aspiring leaders in the new world.

Every business leader, regardless of industry or functional background, has to take responsibility for making key decisions in a few critical areas, particularly in setting the right strategy, making the big operational decisions (around products, marketing, operations, etc.) to implement that strategy, and hiring, developing and retaining the right people to make it all possible. And making those decisions well becomes significantly more difficult in a software business when you don’t understand software.

Put a stack of computer programmers’ resumés in front of me and ask me to pick the five best to call in for interviews? You might as well just pick them at random from a hat.

Ask me to engage with a product team and figure out why a new product introduction is late and whether their “get-well” plan is viable? Forget about it.

Tell me that my biggest competitor is moving from Linux to Windows-based offerings and ask me whether we should match the move? I’ll probably say something like. “Let’s wait and see.”

Now the pat answer to all of the above is, “that’s why you have direct reports.” Let your HR team worry about evaluating talent. Let your head of product management keep the new product pipeline fresh and your CTO get the new products built in time for launch. But I’m not sure that cuts it in the world of the Industrial Internet. Just as CEOs are expected to have a basic understanding of finance so they can stay closely aligned with their CFOs, the CEOs of the future are going to need to understand enough about technology (and in most cases that means some programming) to talk to their CTOs, product teams, etc. That’s not to say that leaders in the new era will be called upon to code any more than they’re called upon today to fix journal entries in accounting systems. But they’ll need to be able to interact with the people who do - to hire the right folks, give them reasonable strategic direction, and assess their performance.

After all, what happens when your direct reports disagree, or when it turns out their judgment isn’t as good as you first thought? Just as no CEO wants the first sign of incompetence in his CFO to come when the SEC knocks on his door, so tech company CEOs should want the ability to evaluate their people’s performance before new products tank or sales drop off a cliff.

In the future I’d venture to say the ranks of leadership both on the military side and on the defense industrial side are going to be populated by folks with at least a provisional understanding of the role software plays in modern systems.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I managed to convince not only my brother (and my Dad) that software literacy is going to be paramount in the new economy - I managed to convince myself. So if anyone has any recommendations for how I can develop a base-level understanding of this whole coding thing without taking a year of leave from work or breaking the bank it’d be much appreciated. Seriously. Email me.

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Todd Stiefler

Todd joined GE from the world of Washington politics, and in no time at all has moved on to his second assignment, which sees him managing business development for the services GE is increasingly looking to offer to customers, including the Proficy SmartSignal predictive analytics software.

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