This image reminds me of how time — at geological scales — can radically reshape the landscape

On Time, Trump and Developers

When it comes to a range of arguments between people of good faith — from politics to open developer platforms — it seems to me that the bright dividing line might be time.

Consider this question.

“What is in your own self interest and the interest of your family?”

The answer to this question can only be answered properly when you first stop to ask a clarifying question.

“Within what time horizon?”

Let me try to explain.

If the time horizon is this year, then the answer for someone in an isolated American town whose economy was based on manufacturing might answer…

“Bringing manufacturing and jobs back to America”

or

“Stopping Muslims from entering the US because they might blow something up at any minute”

And in the context of this year then — despite the reality that manufacturing jobs are being outsourced to robots (not China or India) and the fact that the probabilities of ‘a Muslim’ blowing something up is vanishingly small (nor do muslims have a monopoly on blowing things up)— you might forgive someone for believing that these are exactly the issues he or she should care about.

Let me apply this to a seemingly totally unrelated area of life that I also follow closely. Product Development and Open Developer Ecosystems.

For those who are not well versed in Product Development, Open Developer Ecosystems and some of the inherent tension let me try to explain as succinctly as I can. Often times software/internet companies will struggle to decide if they should build a feature ‘1st party’ (E.g. Apple making it’s own ‘Apple News’ app) vs. allowing 3rd party app developers to build it as part of an open marketplace (E.g. Apple’s App Store which contains a range of News apps from a range of companies unaffiliated with Apple).

If a company were to ask itself…

“What is in our best interest? Develop a first party feature or provide a opportunity for an ecosystem of developers to contribute?”

Again, if the time horizon is one year, the answer is pretty straight forward. Any sane product manager would want to make it 1st party. Own it, control the pixels, minimize any cognitive load on the user when it comes to choice/opt-in and maximize control over any potential revenue.

Everything changes, however, when you change the time horizon.

Imagine the questions above are changed to use a time horizon of 20 years. Imagine the person being interviewed is also encouraged to, before answering, look back 20, 60 or even 100 years for historical precedent.

So let me formulate the questions again.

“Given what history has taught us over the last 100 years; what is in your own self interest and the interest of your family over the next 20 years?”

In the context of politics one might answer…

“Given that automation (in the modern case, robots) is going to replace many (if not most) jobs and that a growing, global middle class means more customers for US products, perhaps we should focus on ensuring we are the most dynamic, competitive and well educated country when it comes to energy, entrepreneurship, robotics, education, research and development.
Perhaps since the global Muslim population is vast and growing fast — and demographic trends generally mean that ‘our kind’ (whatever that may be) will inevitably be just a small percentage of any population, we should find a way to build bridges, not walls.”

Of course, this assumes the theoretical interview subject is not fundamentally racist, is well educated on historical trends and is not feasting on a diet of right-wing ‘news’ or miss-information.

Applied to product development and developer platforms, the reformulated question might be…

“Given what history has taught us over the last 100 years of technology and the last 20 years of Internet companies; what is in the best interest of your company over the next 20 years?”

And the answer might be…

“Unless we truly believe that this feature is essential to our core business and unique value proposition, it is actually more valuable to take the time to position ourselves as a nexus for innovation and iteration by engineers, apps and services everywhere. In this way, we don’t just build a feature that’s easy for the competition to replicate, but rather make ourselves an indispensable broker of a thriving marketplace that is far more difficult to copy.”

Of course, like all simple explanations, there’s much more to it than that. But it seems to me that time is an essential component of one’s intellectual framework about the world.

So when you find yourself debating how and what to do with someone, consider that their time horizon might be different than yours. Addressing that mis-alignment might make the discussion go more smoothly.

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