On Making The Future

Summary: Conservative attitudes don’t make the future. It’s the people who decide to put ideas into action and assume risk along the way.

There is a fundamental problem with conservatism in tech. Too many developers act like powerless bystanders despite having the potential and resources to act on new ideas. They need to get an “OK” from the community before they adopt progressive concepts. I’ve seen this notion play out all too many times.

If everyone waits for someone else to do the thing, then the thing never happens. How do we make the future if we don’t assume the core of innovation - risk?

The Mental Security Of Social Proof

The other day I was having coffee with a friend who runs a mid-size software consulting company. We were discussing Elixir and his employees’ enthusiasm for learning the language and using it during client projects. He was interested but hesitant; clients weren’t asking for Elixir and he was reluctant to sell it given the uncertainty about future adoption.

“It’s better to wait and see how things shake out,” was his notion.

This cautious attitude is understandable for any company that’s relied on steadfast Rails projects as its bread and butter for years. Clients have heard of this technology, they know candidates have experience with it - all in all, it’s one less risk in the startup mines.

But this attitude is anathema to my way of thinking. To me, the surest way to know the future is to make it yourself. After all, “community adoption” is not an abstract idea for a phenomenon that happens to us, like gravity. Concretely, it’s a series of individual developers saying “I’m going to use Elixir on this next project,” and then using Elixir on their next project. That’s it.

The future is nothing more than what a bunch of people decide to do. You are one of those people.

Where Managing Risk Becomes Reality

We faced this dilemma when starting up the first EMPEX conference - does the community come before the gathering? Or does the event build the community? In the Winter of 2015, the New York Elixir Meetup group averaged only 6 attendees. I suspected there was latent interest, but committing oneself to such a costly project based solely on enthusiasm and a gut feeling was a gamble.

I had to consider the financial implications of putting down thousands of dollars on a venue as well as the personal risks of assembling a team of organizers, inviting talk proposals, soliciting sponsorships, and everything else that large-scale event management entails. Ultimately, I decided to go ahead, fueled by my conviction that the future is truly up to us. It worked, and we’re now starting up a second EMPEX series in Los Angeles.

Crevalle is in a position to play with this risk as we’re a small, nimble company. In larger consultancies, the sheer number of players with different agendas and perspectives - managers, technical leads, individual contributors - fractures the client-consultancy relationship. Each party has a different relationship with the client and it’s difficult to manage this interplay.

However, small consultancies benefit from the cohesion of speaking with one voice. Since I have all these relationships rolled into one, I’m in an advantageous position to make business case pitches to non-technical founders, technical pitches to tech leads, and to give hands-on training via pair programming to client developers. In other words, organizational simplicity makes ideas simultaneously easier to pitch, refine, and execute.

Elixir Is The Result Of Innovation Risk

I don’t foresee a future where Elixir “fails.” That word doesn’t even make sense in this context, as though some cosmic professor is giving an examination and the end of the semester - better study! On the contrary, there is no professor, no test, and no semester. Rather, Elixir adoption is a process - like jazz - that ebbs and flows and sometimes blooms and seems to disappear because it falls off your radar, but is always in the background evolving as new people discover it.

Most Elixir adoption now is in the form of side projects or internal applications at otherwise stable companies. I think we need a flagship product that was developed in Elixir from the start. Such a product would best serve to showcase the core benefits of Elixir: easy realtime capabilities, scalable architecture, and fast iteration.

What I’m basically saying is - go start a company! I know that most of the folks interested in Elixir are in their 30s and may be reluctant to start their own companies. I think you should do it anyway! After all, we're all counting on you.

The current environment seems ripe for such a project. The web is more mature now than when Rails came out; Github and Twitter have already been invented. Perhaps the Next Big Thing is simply a Github clone that, thanks to Phoenix Channels, always shows the latest comments without the need to refresh the page. After all, life happens in realtime; why should I refresh the page? The Nerves project also has great potential as a green field for Elixir applications.

I’m excited about Elixir because it gives me realtime web features for free, lets me structure my applications in a sensible way, and allows for expressive problem solving. It’s not just the newest fad, it’s a powerful tool. It lets me solve old problems in a better way, and it lets me solve new problems that have been out of reach until now.

In other words, it lets me make the future. And there’s nothing stopping you from making yours.

— Desmond Bowe Crevalle founder
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