If Developers Are the New Steelworkers…

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There’s an idea buzzing around the past year or so, I’m sure you’ve heard it by now, that developers are the new steelworkers.

The analogy compares developers to steelworkers at a time when steelworkers were highly skilled, highly paid, and in very high demand.

The analogy breaks down after that — most notably because code (and developers) evolve faster than steel. Code simply doesn’t have the same physical limitations that steel did. Iteration is not capital-bound. Advancements in our modern craft spread fast, many many times in a given person’s career. The success of a given developer, unlike that of a steelworker, is, in some ways, unbounded. Steelworkers couldn’t invent and globally distribute tools to other steelworkers.

There are some problems with this steelworker analogy (which is perhaps what makes it so thought-provoking), but I think it describes some important characteristics of our time period — such as the idea that we are in the midst of a technical boomtime with widespread opportunity for technologists.

Some references where you can find the analogy (in both positive and negative lights):

  • Venkatesh Rao describes hackers as an artisan class of steelmakers and (fascinatingly) goes on to describe entrepreneurs as the new middle management.
  • James Lindenbaum founded Heroku and Heavybit betting that there is tremendous opportunity in providing tools to these developer artisans. This article describes theHeavybit manifesto, comparing the current tech economy to the early days of the automotive industry.
  • In this critique, Rebecca Solnit compares technologists to miners during the Gold Rush, describing how the present-day boomtime (and the resulting Google buses) are destroying San Francisco.

These stories got me thinking about how our business here at Keen IO fits into this picture. If developers are “the new steelworkers”, our job here at Keen IO is to provide tools and leverage for their projects.

Andrew Carnegie founded Carnegie Steel in the late 1800’s. Carnegie didn’t invent steel. He figured out how to manufacture steel rails with incredible efficiency, so that steelworkers could build railroads and infrastructure at an unprecedented pace. Carnegie profits in 1900 were $40,000,000!

How can we be like Carnegie? If the tech economy is like the early steel industry, there will be a massive number of steelworkers building new railroads, new skyscrapers, new infrastructure. In our modern example, those will be new technology platforms, new software, and new smart devices. AWS, Heroku, Twilio, SendGrid, and Stripe are great examples of how you can build a business helping developers do their jobs faster and more efficiently. Our hope is to join them and play a part in accelerating the the next generation of technology. We want to be the rails and beams developers use to build modern data products.

Industrial vibe of the Heavybit coworking space we call home.

Stairwell made out of, you guessed it, steel!

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