Are we seeing the end of ultimate geek power?

Arguably, there may well have never been such a thing as ultimate geek power; fine.

But I remember a slew of fluff pieces back in the first bubble that were all about the geeks’ role in the economy. More specifically, about how software programmers had suddenly taken over the kingdom and how they were, for the first time, in charge! How they were finally enjoying some of the fame once reserved for business types (if that means crisscrossing the world at the back of a plane, I don’t know that we benefited all that much in the bargain).

Ugh, right. You didn’t buy it either, did you? Still, from our twisted vantage point in the middle of the valley, it is clear that the rise to prevalence, in the last decade or so, of all things web, has allowed many a software engineer to contribute solid technology, innovation, and ultimately build very successful companies.

Is this still going on today? Are software whizzes putting their skill to the same use? Or are we, instead, seeing a shift away from that trend?

I think geek supremacy is at risk! Or rather, I think we need to wake up and focus, or face complete irrelevance. Why? Commoditization (a good thing) and complacency (a bad thing) are combining to create massive distraction.

Here’s what I mean: in the current advertising-driven web economy, a hit mentality has developed and spread everywhere. Eerily similar to 1999’s startups, today’s ventures ride on eye-balls. So far, so good, but what’s troubling for geeks is that technology doesn’t seem to be playing a significant role in what makes or break many of the services in that new crop. In other words, there’s no technical barrier to entry in a lot of the companies monopolizing the airwaves these days.

Hence the distraction: drawn by the current frothiness in the startup scene, we have lots of entrepreneurial engineers coming out of the woodworks, trying to join in with this or that project. But they’re not competing on technology. I am not saying they ever purely were (the mysterious art of marketing, for instance, has always played a decisive role). But things are exacerbated today, as engineers find themselves competing on something where they don’t have any unfair advantage: taste.

Take Facebook’s applications, for example. All the rage these days! It’s a great eco-system with lots of potential for rapid, viral growth, and instant monetization via ads. This sounds like the perfect, low-hanging fruit for your next startup. And it is, in some ways. But is there really anything predisposing a geek to succeed better than anyone else in that arena? Is a geek particularly equipped to anticipate how this or that app will appeal to and stick with various Facebook constituencies? I think not.

Here’s an even better example: Kawasaki’s Truemors. I attended one of his very engaging talks last night, where he covered the launch his latest startup. Whether or not you think truemors stands a chance is not relevant here: the site works, it’s functional. It was built in a couple of months, and for $4.5k initially (Guy threw in another $10k later; he jokes that should he need a second round of funding for the company, he could cover his operating costs for a year from the fees of a single talk). So he built and runs the site pretty much for free. It obviously stands on the shoulders or many giants, the top of the stack being WordPress and a bunch of plug-ins, but that’s precisely the point: in that venture, technology is a commodity. So if you’re not competing on technical execution, you’re competing on marketing and idea. How many software engineers are better equipped than Guy when it comes to generating buzz and ideas?

As he keeps saying: the point of entrepreneurships is not to level the playing field. It is to tilt the playing field toward you as much as you possibly can. I couldn’t agree more.

There’s lots of technology to be built and invented, and I think software engineers certainly have an unfair advantage with that. So it’s about resisting the tempting calls of the low-hanging fruits, and investing instead the cycles required to grasp the harder-to-reach ones. As Twitter’s Ev says, you have to decide what game you’re playing: picking is also about knowing your strengths.

By the way, technology innovation is what we strive for at BlogRovR. It sure feels like we thrive on technical barriers, especially those we can’t quite figure out how to climb at first! If you want to help, come join us.

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