The Software Industry’s “Product” Obsession

Approximately a year ago I joined the software industry.

It took me quite a while, I have to admit. Twenty years ago, just when the late 90s .com bubble was starting, I was about to graduate with a Physics and C.S. degree, and Israel was flooded by software companies trying to recruit the likes of me. I opted for graduate studies in Physics, which, as usually happens with graduate studies, lasted much more than I ever intended them to.

At some point, about a decade ago, when the dreams of an academical career were clearly fading away I took a position as an R&D Physicist in a medical devices company. I worked on algorithms to decipher the signals of an implantable sensors, not that far from what I am doing now as researcher in a software company.

One of the first things I noticed when moving from medical devices to software was the omnipresence of “product”. This was, by all means, very confusing.

The previous company I was working for, and its sister companies, had “project managers”, people in charge of developing, testing and approving a new version of a therapeutic device, a delivery system to implant it or a dedicated ultrasonic probe. All being very tangible things, or products. None of them, however, had the title of a “product manager”.

And then, all of a sudden, moving to the realm of ethereal code and software as a service I found myself facing “product managers” as well as “product marketing managers”, each of them being in charge of certain fluidly defined parts or elements of a website.

It took me a while, but I eventually understood their actual role and its importance. When facing a tough decision I’m turning to my PM and totally trust her judgement and expertise. It is just the title that keeps bothering and confusing me.

After a few weeks in my new job I met the company’s insurance agent to discuss my savings, and all of a sudden the mysterious “product” kept showing up again. I had to chose between two different products for my pension, I was offered other products for me and my family.

At this point I realized something.

Luftgeschäft (“air business”) is a Yiddish term I kept hearing as a child, used to dismiss professions my grandparents found fishy, unworthy, and above all, unproductive. They might end up paying a decent salary, but they are still suspicious — making money out of air without providing anything tangible in return.

We live in an era dominated, maybe even defined, by two gargantuan industries of pure Luftgeschäft, software and finance, both are driving the western economy to unprecedented growth and both provide things which are often unclear, and which cannot be seen or touched.

In a recent post on the New Yorker’s Currency blog titled “Why We Pine for Manufacturing”, Gary Sernovitz wrote

Another reason for this, I suspect, is some subconscious unease with our digitized post-material economy. Many of us sigh when we see a two-year-old reach for an iPad instead of a crayon, or a musician reach for a laptop instead of a guitar. This angst bleeds into a worry that our economy, and our national existence, is following suit. Making a truck is real work. Adding numbers to a database is invisible — and try explaining it to your great-grandmother. It is also “unmanly,” and a macho celebration of “makers” has found its extreme in the form of Trump, a real man, an honorary blue-collar billionaire, a builder of things — skyscrapers, walls.

The manufacturing we pine for is the production of actual “things”, whether they are trucks, medical devices or anything else is of much less importance than their actual “thingyness”. When I buy a TV set I might not understand how it operates but I know what I’m buying, it’s a TV set, not “a product”. But when asked to pay for some obscure lines of code running on a remote server or when asked to give up a part of my salary in return for an abstract and practically incomprehensible promise of getting compensated come some future event, I naturally become slightly suspicious.

This basic suspicion, I believe, is just as strong on the selling side, namely the software companies and the financial institutions, feeding an everlasting, even if obsolete, inferiority complex. Yes, they are huge, they are the most important industries existing today, but they still face the existential dread of being Luftgeschäft, of not producing anything real, of being scorned by previous generations for making money (and a lot of it!) out of thin air.

The remedy both industries came up with for this dread is the same lingual trick, hailing their “products”, appointing “product managers” and “product marketing managers” for the abstracts components and outcome of their work, and once you establish the existence of a product, well, you cannot really be a Luftgeschäft.