The future of work: What happens when talent trumps capital?

I’ve been thinking about the future of work lately, and I keep coming to the same puzzling conclusion: there is a seemingly unbridgeable gap in the market for engineering talent between the elite class of software “makers” and the wealthy enterprise customers who most need their help.

The story goes something like this:

As Marc Andreesen wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “software is eating the world” meaning every organization now needs access to software talent to remain competitive.

Because every company needs software talent, the global market for “technology creatives” (from UX design all the way down the stack) is as hot as it’s ever been

With the hard costs of starting a software business rapidly approaching zero, the best creatives would rather start their own company than work for someone else — they don’t need anyone’s permission to get in business, and the worst-case scenario is that they fail and have to take one of the many jobs available.

The hottest tech companies can still recruit good talent — if they offer interesting problems to work on, a superstar technical peer group and meaningful participation in the upside, but…

The big, profitable companies with the most urgent need for tech talent are the ones least able to access it. 

Those that failed to spot this trend early and lack a native culture of technical competence have very little hope of hiring the talent they need to survive, no matter how much they offer to pay.

Traditionally, the big system integrators and custom dev shops owned the answer to this problem, but increasingly they suffer from the same ailment that their best customers do: no really talented engineer wants to dwell in the bowels of a BDC (big dumb company) for years at a time working on yet another failed enterprise software deployment. And so the vendors who might once have helped solve the problem will increasingly become its victims as well.

One punchline to this story is that we are likely to witness a string of spectacular business failures over the next decade as the incumbents who fail to engage the “technical creative class” are eviscerated by nimbler and more tech-savvy operators. As Chris Dixon writes:

“Predicting the future of the Internet is easy: anything it hasn’t yet dramatically transformed, it will. People, companies, investors and even countries can’t stop this transformation. The only choice you have is whether you join the side of innovation and progress or you don’t.”

It’s the last sentence in that statement that interests me most.

Many late adopters will eventually want to “join the side of innovation and progress” and face extreme difficulties recruiting their way to a solution. As that happens, I see it opening up a window of opportunity for a new type of marketplace that makes the services of the most talented software creatives available to the biggest and most powerful incumbents via “Innovation-as-a-Service”.

The winning providers in this category won’t be the traditional SI body shops, nor will they be the low-end “rent-a-coder” platforms like Elance and oDesk. Instead, a successful firm operating in this market will find a way to:

  • Convince incumbents to expose their most interesting and strategic technical problems to the innovation marketplace
  • Attract the attention of the global elite among the maker class to tackle these problems on a project basis
  • Deliver measurable value to incumbent buyers without requiring full-time or long-term commitments by the elite maker class
  • Transfer enough of the value created back to the makers to reward them for their engagement.
I would argue that the best accelerator programs — led by TechStars and Y Combinator — offer an early look at what Innovation-as-a-Service could look like. Paul Graham periodically issues a Request for Startups, pointing YC applicants toward a specific opportunity he sees as ripe for disruption. TechStars Cloud is a further refinement on the model, focusing an entire class of entrepreneurs in a particular direction. And Weiden + Kennedy’s PIE program — which actually engages incumbent brands like Coke and Target in the entrepreneurial process — looks like another evolutionary step.  
What if there were a platform where the world’s top brands could offer bounties of cash, support and possible acquisition to entrepreneurs who agreed to take on their knottiest technical innovation challenges? Not just for task-level challenges like InnoCentive, but for bigger and more strategic issues, the ones that are most likely to put them out of business if left unaddressed?
See anything like this? Let me know!