Why developers have more power than you think

Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson says skyrocketing demand for more and better software is putting devs in the driver's seat

Why developers have more power than you think

Jeff Lawson is a walking, talking example of the rise of the developer.

Today, he's the CEO of API economy darling Twilio, a cloud platform that offers API-accessible telecom services to marquee customers like Home Depot and Uber. But 20 years ago, he was another computer science student who saw the power of the Internet and wanted to try his hand at building Web applications.

Back then, says Lawson, he did what every other young developer with a wicked Web obsession did: He downloaded a bootleg copy of the popular ColdFusion application server and started building. Five years later, when he became the founding CTO of the ticket exchange service StubHub, Lawson chose ColdFusion again because he knew it inside out.

When StubHub took off, it ended up buying thousands of copies of ColdFusion, all because of one decision Lawson made as a neophyte coder. "This showed me early on that the developer is very influential in determining the tools the business can use to solve its problems," he says.

That, in essence, is Twilio's founding principle. Its market is developers who immediately see the benefit of tapping telecom service APIs in the cloud as opposed to building and deploying those services locally. According to Lawson:

When we started Twilio in 2008, I had a lot of smart people tell me you can't build a company around developers. Developers don't control the checkbook. Developers don't make the technology buying decision, they just kind of do what they're told.... Well, they were thinking back to the world as it existed 25 years ago, when all of your software projects cost millions of dollars and took multiple years to implement and you bought all your software from Oracle, Microsoft, and so on.

The world is very different now, says Lawson, with developers enjoying increasing influence over technology buying decisions, a view supported by InfoWorld's own surveys. Moreover, with agile development methodology and devops, companies are much more inclined to prototype and build their own software rather than licensing it, with direct participation from business stakeholders as part of the process. Public APIs like Twilio's support that model, says Lawson:

We're providing infrastructure building blocks that the developer needs to do his or her job more effectively, and to take those pieces of applications -- composable APIs -- and stitch them together in a way that creates a unique solution to the problem that company has at that point in time. Because we've so drastically lowered the barriers to adoption -- you can get started with a few lines of code and a few dollars -- you can begin building that prototype, showing the business what's possible, experimenting until you find the right solution to the problem that the company has. Now those developers become influential in the technology decisions of the company.

That rising influence has come naturally. Companies understand that to differentiate, they need more and better Web and mobile apps to interact with customers and partners -- as well as constantly evolving core applications that mirror whatever processes make that company unique, from pharmaceutical research to advanced delivery logistics.

This sharply rising demand for code, which includes a commitment to continuous improvement, simply can't be met if developers build from scratch. Public APIs like those Twilio offers, along with open source projects and the cloud platforms on which to build applications, all come into play.

Who should choose which of those resources to use? The developers who actually work with them on the ground, not a CIO several times removed from the issue at hand.

As Lawson says, the barriers to adoption have dropped so low, there's little downside risk in trying, say, one cloud service versus another. But downstream, those try-before-you-commit decisions will have a major effect on how enterprise customers spend their technology budget.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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