Make Yourself Irrelevant: How Engineers Can Really Spur Innovation

The world is full of people who have great, change-the-world ideas, and many of them desperately need someone, or something, to help realize their dreams. In the modern digital world, that help often comes in the form of an engineer.

But as engineers and entrepreneurs know all too well, highly technical individuals have more opportunities than they could possibly manage. As an engineer forced to choose between projects, it's easy to feel like you're not doing enough, or that you're a conduit for someone else's creativity. Generations past used engineers to solve problems like building the Empire State Building or Apollo 11. Today, engineering talent is being used to build someone else's car-sharing app.

If you're an engineer, you can't work with everyone who enlists your help, but you can make a significant difference by working on the process. It may sound cliché, but it all goes back to the old saying, "teach a man to fish." Engineers can change the world by enabling a new kind of Web platform that anyone can use: a platform for people.

Why Johnny Can't Innovate

As the digital takes greater precedence in everyday life, we need to help empower the average person to participate in a more meaningful way. While social networks, blogging sites and micro-site builders have given nontechnical people a taste of what it is like to be an active part of the Web, those experiences represent an insignificant fraction of what is actually possible.

Generations past used engineers to solve problems like building the Empire State Building or Apollo 11. Today, engineering talent is being used to build someone else's car-sharing app.

This is a real problem not just for individuals, but for any company whose livelihood depends on a strong digital presence. The barriers to entry, however, just get higher as technology advances. It's not enough just to be creative; you must also harness technical know-how.

But expecting an entrepreneur to develop her own Web app with today's complex user interfaces is like expecting Hendrix to craft his own guitar ... after he's planted the trees and harvested the wood to make it. Had that been the case, how many albums do you think we'd have experienced?

For most individuals, and nearly 100% of companies, the only option is to hire an expert engineer as a digital liaison, which is a huge barrier to unlocking the greater power of the Web.

Having to rely on engineers has other downsides as well. Adding extra layers to a workflow designed to implement and transmit ideas adds distortion. If you've ever played the game "telephone," you know that "great business idea" can quickly turn into "fate is pizzeria" when you rely on someone else to express your ideas for you.

Don't Code—Build The Tools That Write The Code

How do we fix this and get to a place where anyone with a great idea can turn it into something real? We need to minimize the distance between the intended concepts and the articulation of ideas. We need tools that allow anyone, regardless of technical background, to construct something on the Web and manipulate digital objects directly, without a middleman.

In the digital world, these tools come in the form of websites and interactive Web experiences that can be created and modified with a simple touch. These are the tools that engineers must focus on building: ones that help people to help themselves. In other words, engineers must ask themselves, "How can I make myself irrelevant?"

We need tools that allow anyone, regardless of technical background, to construct something on the Web and manipulate digital objects directly, without a middleman.

The answer lies in the convergence of modern Web technologies. We need to bridge the gap between the current standard of Web creation and the next generation of interfaces, which will be created by non-developers.

A good place to start is with processes that people already understand and that require very minimal changes in their behavior. Think of the Web equivalent of WYSIWYG word processing here. By developing platforms that provide higher levels of abstraction, we can help non-technical people express their ideas without them having to worry about what's going on under the hood.

This idea of "bridging the gap" is similar to what Apple and Microsoft did with personal computing. Before the introduction of graphical user interfaces such as Mac OS and Windows, people used terminals and command prompts for computing. Let's make Web development as accessible as personal computing, allowing people to implement their ideas without having to learn how to code.

Hurrah For The Irrelevant Engineer

By developing a platform for people, engineers will help solve this problem of accessibility. And in so doing, they'll largely eliminate the need for their jobs.

This obviously creates a new dilemma. Why would anyone want to make him or herself irrelevant? It comes back to the reality that engineers can only do so much with their time—and we'd all benefit if that time was spent solving really challenging engineering problems rather than acting as digital liaisons.

We've reached a point in our society in which the Web is an integral part of life, and engineers can help create a way to make everyone able to harness the power of that world. In the future, people will go from hiring developers to creating digital experiences with their own hands. Let's aim for a future in which Web developers as we know them are irrelevant, and engineers can go back to building spaceships.

Lead image via the Seattle Municipal Archives on Flickr, CC 2.0