The Scalability of a Programmer’s Effort

Recently I was talking to a friend of mine who’s an attorney. We were talking about how most law firms operate with an intense focus on the billable hour including a number of tactics around CYA and risk mitigation that result in more dollars billed to clients. As an example, each year we get an external financial audit and as part of it they’re required to ask our law firm if we have any outstanding litigation, and that results in a $500 lawyer bill because each of the corporate-related departments has to chime in and say they don’t know of any thing. That $500 is a waste but I understand why it happens. I was excited to read that in England they passed a law allowing non-lawyers to be equity partners in firms that offer legal services. That’s right, in the United States you can’t own part of a firm that offers legal services unless you’re a lawyer — how crazy is that?

Law firms live and die by the billable hour due to a number of reasons one of which is the scalability of their efforts. Think about it: for each client they use boiler-plate documents but then spend extensive time customizing them to the situation, and there are always a thousand permutations. There are some economies of scale for senior lawyers with the associate pyramid scheme whereby junior people work hard for several years in hopes of becoming a partner, and the big pay increase that comes with it. Now, contrast that to the scalability of a skilled programmer’s efforts.

A skilled teenager can write software in his dorm room to help with the dating scene on campus and become a billionaire many times over less than a decade later (Facebook). The power of software is astounding. In fact, software is eating the world according to Marc Andreessen. With the proliferation of open source providing re-usable components at no cost, cloud computing for infinite scalability, and smart phones in millions of pockets the scalability of a programmer’s effort increased by a magnitude, if not more.

Of course, without users or customers the value of a programmer’s efforts can be minimal but for startups that make it, economies of scale of software engineering is astronomical. Pinterest had over 10 million visitors last month, been in business a couple years, and yet only has 16 employees. The scalability of a talented programmer’s effort is incredible.

What else? What are some other thoughts on the scalability of a programmer’s effort?

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