The Creative Programmer

Perspective on Ideas

Burlington Lift Bridge

Back on March 13th, I asked how theaudience valued ideas in the [software development/productcreation] process. This was a question I was spurred to askafter seeing yet another series of “Ideas are worthless!“proclamations on software development discussion boards. Ashas been the case many times in the past, the statements werequickly propped up by dozens of supporters, certain that it was theshovel in the dirt that makes the project, and not the guysitting back thinking up grand visions.

Of course, threads on discussion boards have never been an equalrepresentation of commonly held viewpoints: The people who are themost motivated to make their opinion known — often only those whofeel that their views will “fit in” without friction — are themost likely to reply on such venues, so certain mindsets appearmore prevalent than they actually are.

In contrast, over half of the answers to the poll on here (whichreceived a surprizingly high 25 votes. I’ve found thelurker-to-active participant ratio to be huge on thesesorts of things, so I was surprized that 25 people took a moment toexpress their view. The poll is still active, and will be until theend of the month, so values will of course change) valued ideas assomewhat or equally important as the implementation.

Of course, getting into a topic like this requires someclarification of what exactly is being discussed, otherwise bothparties end up burning strawmen rather than actually debatingthe argument on merit.

The Google Case Study


Let’s make a better search engine than Google!” isn’tan idea. It’s a lofty goal. “Let’s consider links on the weblikes votes, and build a search engine that ranks pages based uponthe number of votes” is an idea, and it’s an idea that has thefoundersof Google jetting around in their personal 767.

Given the basic foundations of PageRank, backed by a patent (*), the Google founders could have farmed out theimplementation to any of countless capable development team(of which there are tens or hundreds of thousands around theglobe), though of course the implementation that Google did createis so extraordinary and cost-effective that it took a great basicidea, and gave it a fabulous implementation. I could have been afootnote in history if the wrong team implemented it, requiringanother System z mainframe for every 10 simultaneous requests.

The result of the founder’s great idea, coupled with agreat implementation, was the winning, ultra-high speedsearch engine that cost-effecitvely scales, providing morecomputing services to search engine clients around the globe thancompetitors.

Google is now valued at $68 billion dollars.


Of course the perfect combination is a developer thatbrings creativity to their projects. One who doesn’t needto be literally directed in every activity, but instead acts as aprofessional and less as a technician. Similarly, it is beneficialwhen a developer has respect enough for ideas and the creativeprocess that they appreciate the contribution of peers andpartners, understanding the value that it really does bring.

Countless vertical market products have succeededdespite terrible implementations because the founder hadknowledge about an industry, and brought some original ideas abouthow to do it better (perhaps a better process flow, orsome ideas about how data could be used more effectively). Giventhe hostile opinion many developers have of ideas, often thesefounders end up pulling up Visual Basic or some other RAD tool anddeveloping it themselves, succeeding despite having whattechnically is a terrible product. How much better itwould have been if a developer embraced the idea, and created afirst rate technical solution to go with an original, valuableidea.

Software Patents

* – While I think software patents are, in common practice, atravesty, it is the implementation by the USPTO that isthe problem — they’re granting ridiculous patents for, excuse thepun, patently obvious “ideas”.

Nonetheless, there are many patents that have been granted tonon-obvious ideas. This is difficult for many to believe,because in retrospect of course they seem obvious now.

There was once a time when mankind believed that the Earth wasthe center of the universe, and that our eyes projected light, andthat eye-illumination was how we were able to see oursurroundings. As ridiculous as those ancient beliefs soundnow, it wasn’t until someone did some “implementation” (research)based upon an idea (a hypothesis) that we became enlightened. Whatwe know now seems obvious with this additional information.