Ask Yourself: Should I Build This?

A couple of years ago, I heard Guy Kawasaki talk about how the thing that defined Silicon Valley was its “what the hell, let’s build it” attitude. It took me a while to get it, but I came round to understanding his point: get moving, build something, figure out who cares about what you’ve built, and then evolve the product. It’s good advice, to a point.

However, there comes a point where the market is so saturated that you start to do stupid things. I got a great example of one such thing in the email today:

Barbecue. On your iPhone. Yes, you heard me right.

It’s called, creatively, “Barbecue”. It’s from San Francisco-based Equinux. I’m pretty sure it’s one of the signs of the apocalypse.

Now, I’m sure there will be people that will purchase this application; it’s cute, gimmicky, and it will doubtlessly keep someone entertained for at least three minutes. But the breathless copy proclaiming this application’s unparalleled awesomeness is simply over the top:

Serve steaks to your friends on Facebook, share kebabs and ribs on Twitter or via Mail. Barbecue on the iPhone:

  • Photo realistic images that make your mouth water
  • Top notch graphics to get a real bbq experience
  • Real sound effects to bring the thrill to the grill

Seriously? We spent countless billions building silicon foundries, a revolutionary mobile operating system, and the associated expertise to simulate the experience of BBQ? I could do the real thing for a couple of bucks, with the obvious bonus that I’d actually get to eat the results. I know somewhere, a software developer is clucking their tongue and pontificating on those silly marketing people. But, last I checked, the marketing people didn’t build this application.

I worry that developers have lost some serious perspective in their bid for fame and fortune. Just because it makes money, doesn’t mean it’s useful. Now, I’m not suggesting that we toss out our enthusiasm for trying new, unproven things; however, I am suggesting that developers need to start considering whether or not their software offers any socially redeeming value.

Developers need to start not only asking themselves “can we build it?”, but also “should we build it?”

The How and Why of Barcamp

We’re on our final approach to next month’s Barcamp Vancouver which is shaping up nicely due to the contributions of many volunteers and a list of wonderful sponsors. But one thing bothers me – any time I mention Barcamp to most people I get one of two perplexing responses:

  1. “What’s that?”
  2. “Why would I want to participate?”

This post is designed to answer these questions for people in Vancouver.

To answer the first question: Barcamp is an unconference – this means that the participants determine the content. If you head on over to the topics, you’ll see sessions that various people want to present and moderate during Barcamp. In fact, the first thing you’ll notice is that you probably don’t know a single speaker. There are no rockstar presenters, à la TED; Al Gore will not be dropping by prior to heading out to save the whales.

Instead, the speakers are ordinary people – just like you! They’ve got something they’ve built, started, been involved in, or are generally passionate about that they want to share with other people who might be interested. They bring something unique to the conference for people to explore, understand, and comment upon. That’s it.

Which brings us to the second question: why should you participate? Well, in a nutshell, because you can. Everyone has something they’re working on that they should share with other like-minded individuals. Sharing is scary, but sharing makes it real; sharing not only validates what you’re working on, but also gives you a great opportunity to tap into the passion and expertise of a whole community.

Back in 2005, I gave a talk on SVG v. AJAX (creatively titled “Ajax-Schmajax”) at the first Barcamp. In honesty, I almost didn’t present until Scott Beale (of Laughing Squid fame in San Francisco) prodded me into presenting over a cocktail at the pre-Barcamp party. When I pointed out that I wasn’t sure why anyone should care about my topic, his advice was simple: “It doesn’t matter what your topic is, all that matters is that you share it with the others and see where it leads. That’s how we do things in Silicon Valley.”

So yes, I was peer-pressured into presenting at an unconference. And now this is me pressuring you to present at Barcamp: get your session on the list of proposed topics (and not living in Vancouver is not a barrier – sign up for a remote session). Let’s make the Vancouver technology/maker/tinkerer community a “share by default” community.