Still, there has never been a better time to be a geek with a dream. Launching a new product is all but free. “The incremental cost of starting a start-up beyond hanging out and doing nothing is basically zero,” says Paul Graham, the Viaweb co-founder turned tech sage who now runs Y Combinator, a start-up incubator in Mountain View. Server space is vanishingly cheap. Open-source software is readily available. While California faces one of the worst budget crises in its history and national employment numbers remain stagnant, venture capitalists stalk the campuses of Stanford and Caltech, looking for fertile ideas on which to sprinkle dollars.
And thanks to social networks and mobile devices, your audience is right there: If you build it, they will download. When Pulse went live on the iTunes App Store, it was clunky and slow, with an ugly 3-D graphic pasted across the background. Still, it quickly became the top-selling paid iPad application, with more than 15,000 downloads in the first few weeks. “I was like, Why are people buying this shit?” says Kothari. Its second iteration was smoother, with no 3-D monstrosity and soon a price tag of zero. But the decision to launch immediately—rather than sit around perfecting the app—was crucial.
The most important shift for programmers isn’t the economy or even social networking. It’s a concept called abstraction. Abstraction basically means automating low-level tasks (like designing a button for a website from scratch) so that you, the creator, can focus on high-level problems (like how the website looks and feels). Over the last decade, coding has become increasingly abstract. Thanks to the open-source software movement, engineers have access to vast online troves of free code they’d otherwise have to write themselves. At the same time, companies like Apple and Google have built tool kits for programmers who want to design apps. A lot of iPhone apps use the same scroll feature, for example. That’s because Apple offers it as a free “black box” tool—you can use it, you just can’t open it up to see how it works. In a sense, coders aren’t builders so much as D.J.’s, pulling a few lines of code here and a black box there and smushing them together.
YouTube Instant is, in essence, a mash-up of two existing technologies: Google’s “suggest” algorithm, which lets you search the most common terms, and YouTube’s embedding capability. “I didn’t do these things myself,” says Feross. “I just combined them together in a way that hadn’t been done before.”
Abstraction helps engineers build new things faster. Pulse came to life in only five weeks because many of the components—scroll functions, buttons, fonts, layouts—already existed. Other start-up logistics get abstracted, too: Buying server space, once an ordeal on par with renting an apartment, now takes twenty minutes online, thanks to companies like Amazon that handle it for you. Advertising your product no longer requires a sales team, thanks to ad networks. Companies like StartX and Y Combinator facilitate the legal and accounting mumbo-jumbo as well as the investment meetings.
All this would seem to mean that anyone with an idea could bring it to market, regardless of programming talent. In fact, it means the opposite.
At a picnic table outside the Stanford Coffee House, Feross flips open his MacBook Pro and shows me his latest invention. It’s a site called Instant.fm that allows users to create playlists online. It sounds obvious—anyone who knows Spotify or Grooveshark gets the point. The difference is Instant.fm’s simple interface, video capability, and easy sharing. Feross’s key insight was pulling the music instantly from YouTube—sound familiar?—thereby dancing around copyright issues, and cataloguing tunes using data from another music site, Last.fm. Like YouTube Instant, the genius of Instant.fm isn’t its component parts but their clever combination.
When I point out to Feross that the whole playlist thing has been done before, he smiles. “Ideas are a dime a dozen,” he says. “Execution is what matters.”
I hear this over and over. “I’m not a big believer in ideas,” says Panagiotis Ipeirotis, a professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University who’s also a programmer. “I believe in execution much more than the idea.” “It’s one thing to have a great idea,” says Dan Thompson. “It’s another to be an engineer and to have a great idea.” For example, Thompson was recently working on an app for the iPhone called Recollect, which would use Bluetooth to help people find stuff they tend to lose, like their keys. Thompson wasn’t the first to have the idea—Phone Halo and Cobra Tag already exist. The difference, Thompson says, is he’ll do it better.
Even the great American fable of our time, The Social Network, is about the triumph of execution over concept. “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook,” Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg tells the Winklevoss twins in the film.