Developer Week in Review: Developers are our most important asset?

A good hacker is hard to find, a cheap data center is hard to get to, and the app store model is hard to ignore

I’m about halfway through the Steve Jobs biography (currently in the middle of the NeXT years), and I am continually struck by the dissonance of Jobs’ incredible insight about some things and total blindness to others. It reminds me of an observation I used to make about some people: There’s a reason Wisdom and Intelligence were two different stats in Dungeons & Dragons.

Not all of us are born to ascend to such lofty heights of fame, but it’s nice to know that …

Developers: Not just nameless cogs in the machine?

People who make a living making software have had reason to be nervous over the last decade. The trend seems to have been a race to the bottom of the salary scale, with generic talent in developing countries valued on par with highly experienced developers at home. Even when companies were willing to acknowledge that an external developer might not be as productive as an experienced one who has been working for the company for many years, the argument was made that since you could hire four or five foreign developers for the price of the stateside talent, the economics still made sense.

Now, an interesting essay in Forbes makes the argument that really good developers aren’t twice or three times as valuable as the average, but 10 times or more. The essay’s author, Venkatesh Rao, puts forward the proposition that smart companies such as Google recognize the value of retaining their high-end talent and deliberately shower them with lavish perks to keep them from straying. Rao argues that because developers require so little support infrastructure (as opposed to a biologist, for example, who needs staff and a lab), highly productive software engineers have a direct multiplier effect on the bottom like.

I’ve been noticing the beginnings of a backlash against the offshoring fad, as it seems have others. The question, of course, is whether average companies are able to look past the immediate cash-flow factor and evaluate the value of their staffs based on things such as the end quality of the product and (to quote Mr. Jobs) how insanely great the results are.

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Data centers and the boonies economy

The news has been alight recently with stories of large companies (Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft) setting up massive data centers in out-of-the-way locations. The reasons for this are several, and they’ve resulted in a perfect storm of motivations for placing data centers in rural locations.

First off, data centers require a lot of square footage, and a million square feet in the greater San Francisco Bay area is obviously a lot more expensive than in the wilds of Washington state. Construction costs are likely to be lower as well. Tax rates tend to be lower, and small country towns are more likely to offer incentivized tax rates to bring in jobs.

Second, data centers don’t really require a lot of high-end staffing, beyond a resident engineer or two to keep things humming. Security personnel and maintenance staff are non-skilled positions that can be hired as easily in the mountains of the Ozarks as in downtown New York. And once again, they are likely to work much cheaper because the cost of living in rural locations is so low.

Many rural locations also are close to low-cost power generation sources, such as dams. Since electricity is a major cost in data center budgets, getting your power locally can take a large bite out of operating budgets. In addition, there is a belt of climate that runs through areas such as Colorado that offers the ability to take advantage of open air cooling, rather than having to run costly air conditioning all the time.

There’s also something to be said for geographic diversity. If The Big One ever hits San Francisco, it will take down pretty much any data center in the affected area. Scattering your eggs into multiple baskets is common sense.

The reason that this works for data centers, and less so for things such as manufacturing, is that all a data center needs to function is good connectivity. With so much dark fiber strung across the country, it’s not that expensive to bring multiple “fat pipes” to even the most remote locations, especially when you factor in all the savings. Data centers don’t need good rail infrastructure, highways, geographic centrality, or any of the other factors that drive location decisions for physical manufacturing.

Your mobile news roundup

Ignoring for the moment the continual cacophony of lawsuits and counter-suits that seem to be business as usual these days, there were actually some recent news items of note in the mobile space.

There’s no publicly available API for developers to add their own mojo to Apple’s Siri, but that hasn’t stopped enterprising hackers from discovering a way to do a man-in-the-middle intercept and add their own functionality. Before anyone gets in a tizzy, it only works if the mobile user explicitly opts in by installing a self-signed SSL certificate so that HTTPS connections to the hacked Siri proxy succeed. It’s not something that could be done behind your back. Once in place, you can insert your own Siri functionality by writing code in Ruby on the proxy server. I’ve tried it, and it’s surprisingly easy to make Siri jump through hoops. Apple will probably close this loophole soon, but for the moment it offers a tantalizing look at how powerful general access to a voice interface could be. The word is that Apple is hiring two engineers to work on APIs for Siri. Evidently, Apple sees the potential, too.

In Android-land, Google announced that the ten billionth app had been downloaded from the Android Market. By comparison, the 15 billionth iTunes app purchase occurred this summer, as announced at WWDC. There’s no question that Android’s velocity is greater than iOS, due largely to the huge number of phones running Android now, most of which are significantly cheaper than an iPhone. Is it time to wonder if the iPhone is going to end up being the Betamax of phones, eventually done in by a flood of inexpensive competitors? Or will it end up being more like the MacBook, the choice of anyone who can afford them?

In Redmond, Microsoft is ramping up a developer infrastructure for its Windows 8 platform, and the company has decided to follow the app store model as well. It appears that Microsoft will be offering better terms for developers, something that shouldn’t be surprising, given Microsoft’s legendary loyalty to those who choose to follow the way of Windows.

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