Scalable vs. Non-Scalable job

I am currently reading The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, certainly a great book to read.

One interesting note at the beginning of the book is about Scalable vs. Non-Scalable job. I found this distinction interesting. For me, the word scalable had a precise meaning for software: an application (especially a server app) is said to be scalable if, by running it simultaneously on N pieces of hardware, the application performance is multiplied by N. But let’s focus on the fact that programming is one of the rare job that can be done in a scalable or non-scalable way.

So what is a non-scalable job? It is a profession where you are paid by the hour. Being a programmer, team leader or architect, employee or consultant or mentor, all these are non scalable job. Owning a significant amount of shares of the company you are programming for, this is a scalable job. Developing a unique software and selling it to non-bounded number of end users, this is a scalable job. Creating one web-site for each client is non-scalable, but selling licenses for a web-site creator tool is scalable. Developing an OSS project and selling consultancy around it is not scalable.

The author Nassim Nicholas Taleb got advised once to choose a scalable job, and he chosed to be a trader (and indeed, ordering 1K or 1M of shares require the same amount of effort for a potential benefit, or loss, 1000 times higher). A posteriori, Taleb considers that this advice was a bad advice, because in scalable job areas, most of the benefits are aggregated by a very few numbers of actors.

But thanks to its zero cost of replication, and thanks to the internet medium for diffusion, software has the unique characteristic to create not-too-risky scalable activities. Of course if you try to develop the next OS to concurrence Windows, it is pretty risky. But investing 3 months of development in a prototype to gauge the response of a niche market is not too risky.

While I see around many talented programmers, I see very few of them engaged in a scalable activity. Talented programmers usually get a decent hourly fixed income. In addition they enjoy their job and they are not superficial. Hence becoming rich is not part of their priority in life.

Often I have seen marketing and management guys treating programmers as a necessary evil in software companies. They are expensive, they contest decisions, they have ego. And often I have seen programmers frustrated to see marketing and management guys earning non-decent amount of money by selling the programs they develop.

But often, programmers don’t realize that the power is in their hands. Why not trying to invest your talent into your own ISV and stop seeing others making money on your back. As said, programmers are not superficial people and being rich might not be your top priority. But money is not just about being millionaire, money is the pass to freedom: freedom of not undergoing incompetent management and their inept decisions, freedom of coding your way, with the most recent version of your favorite language instead of maintaining old dusty legacy, freedom to code at your best suited time of the day and spend more time with your relatives, freedom to not have to ask anybody when planning your vacation… And as a bonus, with a scalable activity you can make part of the possible to be financially independent one day.

Hope this modest post can help you!

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  • Jaime Yu

    I think if you form classrooms and teach several people at once about the project, then it is scalable. Otherwise, you will need to teach each individual customer and have the course customized specifically for them.

    Making 1 consultation for n people is scalable
    Making 1 consultation for 1 person isn’t.

  • Anonymous

    Anne, you shouldn’t underestimate programmers concerning their capacity to sale a product. The cliché of a geeky programmers not being able to communicate with anything else than a machine is, well, a cliché. It certainly applies to a portion of programmers, but talented programmers I’ve met are very often, also great mind with excellent communication skills.

    The old-school option of wearing a nice Paul Smith costume + a flashy tie and visiting clients physically one by one, with a nice seller rethoric, is not what I would call a scalable option.

    Nowadays, sales occur online, and here, programmers have a major
    advantage. There are powerful online sale tools, namely AdWords, and
    when it comes to understand how AdWords works and how to use it
    efficiently to have the biggest bang for the buck, being a programmer helps a lot.

    The biggest problem for a programmer that starts a business
    based on a software, is to know well the domain and the exact needs
    of its future clients (finance, architecture, medical, automation…). If the software fits the client need, the sales will follow.

  • Anne Ominous

    If you have a non-scalable programmer’s job, with a boss above you, you should have a talent to write software. Additionally, your talent to sell should have been at least one time enough to sell your work time.

    If you have a non-scalable job without a boss above you, you additionally need the talent to sell your work all the time. Many if not most talented programmers will lack this talent and fail. Or better stay within the first group.

    If you want to have a scalable job at selling your programs, you additionally need the talent to convince sellers. Probably much, much more than you need the talent to write software, as the focus will have to change. I do not see many of the first group also fit in here. Leaving the first group for planning to join the second or third group, you should be aware of the change in talent requirements, and the consequences if you fail to also fulfill these.

    Besides, the opportunities for scalable jobs overall are clearly strongly limited. Even in those fields that actively promote their business for false promises of scalability (MLM), the majority is bound to fail for just that reason. That does not change when you’re not within MLM-Land and these promises are not being made.

  • Anonymous

    >I differ with you on the point about scalable  jobs in software being
    less risky.

    Another point underline in the book is the Diagoras effect: those (few) who have a successful experience, have a tendency to speak about their experience (like me with the post on entrepreneurship linked) hence introducing a significant biais in the perception one can have on how easy/difficult it is to achieve success.

    But still I have this huge biais in mind: as long as one is targeting some professional with a useful and ergonomic software, one can certainly make a living from it.

  • dev km

    Nassim is very convincing with his arguements, too intelligent for mortals like me some times !!!.

    I differ with you on the point about scalable  jobs in software being less risky.  Three months to guage public response advice is not very different from asking an actor to solicit roles for 3 months or asking an artist to paint for 3 months and move on if it doesnt work.  A successful artist would have created any number of master peices before making it big. And only a handful do actually make it big. Not very different for creators of software I am afraid.

    Better have a non scalable job in hand while looking out  for scalable options. :)

  • Gilles Leblanc

    Because consultancy is a per hour service. If you yourself are doing consultancy. You can’t bill 10 clients for the same hour.

    If you sell a software to 10 clients which took 1 hour to program, you have just scaled your work.

  • Anonymous

    > you don’t believe that money == happiness

    On a side note, in French, a common saying is: Money doesn’t bring happiness
    But a famous French comic actor used to say: Money doesn’t bring happiness … for poor people

    Concerning freedom, once I picked in a Paulo Coehlo book this interesting sentence: Freedom is not an absence of commitment, freedom is the power to choose what is worth to get committed on. I guess this is the kind of freedom money can buy.

  • Chad Myers

    @Patrick I like this post, it struck a nerve with me.  In the last part, even if you don’t believe that money == happiness, being able to take charge and have ownership of your environment will make you happier, even if it doesn’t necessarily make you richer.  I think that’s why a lot of programmers are unhappy/disgruntled, because they see what the right thing is, but can’t do it because some boss is blocking them.  That  will make anyone (not just programmers) unhappy.

  • Anonymous

    Alexis, the OSS area is extremely competitive, with thousands of super talented developers working at night just for glory. Chances are pretty close to null to develop a scalable activity (in terms of income) in these conditions.

    This doesn’t mean that you cannot do money with OSS. You can be a recognized expert on a particular OSS project and sale your skill for 300US$ per hour. But still, if you don’t employ other consultants to do the consulting job for you (which is a pretty rare situation), doing
    consulting around an OSS project won’t be a scalable activity for you.

  • Александр Сидоров

    >>Developing an OSS project and selling consultancy around it is not scalable.

    Why? I think it is scalable.