On Core Competencies and Leveraging Remote Teams

"Software is eating the world".

In 2000 (!), Marc Andreessen (of Netscape and later Andreesen Horowitz venture capital fame) gave an interview in which he espoused the new-famous quote.

Indeed.

Two decades later, the twin forces of computing power improvements (demonstrated by Moore’s Law) combined with the explosion of connectivity (internet and mobile communication) have totally transformed our day-to-day lives. From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, technology - and the software driving that technology - rules our lives. It’s not slowing down, either.

It’s easy sometimes to think about technology as some abstract thing we interact with, but behind all the apps on your phone, the systems that organize your Amazon purchase, the programs that optimize your car’s performance - literally everything - sits billions and billions and billions of lines of code.

Code written by humans.

Which is amazing.

Until you realize there aren’t enough skilled humans to go around.
A recent study by the World Economic Forum showed that by 2020 there will be millions of unfilled tech positions globally. Why? Because software and technology has crept into every facet of our lives, and the companies servicing this need simply can’t hire fast enough.

This leaves technology companies in a bit of a bind. Up till now, the tech being created by the employees of a particular company was largely considered “the secret sauce” - unique IP that could only be created and serviced by the in-house teams, and should therefore be protected and defended at all costs. And when you can hire enough smart people, that strategy holds true.

Unfortunately, as the WEF study demonstrates, this is no longer the case; companies simply can’t find enough tech talent - especially in extra-competitive talent markets. Access to talent is now a significant constraint to growth broadly, and speed-to-market for tech companies specifically.

So: what are companies to do?

One emerging lever companies have at their disposal is remote talent: sourcing skills outside your core full-time employees. This often requires an organizational mindshift, where overall organizational output and speed-to-market trumps “bums in seats” and traditional headcount planning. Simply put, removing your organization from the talent bunfight in your geography allows you to tap as much talent as you need, so you can focus on “what needs to get built” and worry less about “how will I find the people I need to build it”.

When we talk to prospective clients, one of the first objections is often, “I can’t outsource to an external - everything we do is core.” When we challenge them on that point and start to dig in, they typically realize one of two things:

1. A lot of what they default to defining as “core” initially is actually easily replicable and not a core competitive advantage (see our COO Gary Bode’s excellent piece on this here for further exploration)

2. Even if they believe everything is core - they can’t continue operating in business-as-usual mode. As one client put it, “I’ve got a backlog of bits we’re not getting to that’s over 5000 user stories deep, and I’m adding to that list by 50 a month. I need to do something differently.”

Part of our work at Fuel is helping clients navigate the mental journey to this new world of talent options and opportunities; this often includes challenging the sacred cows of the organization, helping them understand where the boundaries of core/non-core are, and where they can carve-off elements to create additional flexibility internally.

This allows the core team to remain deeply focused on the parts of the organization’s technology that are truly central to the company’s competitive advantage (where you absolutely should focus your team’s core competency) while removing the handbrakes of non-core components and/or “things we’re not getting to fast enough”.

It’s an exciting new paradigm with the potential to redefine competitive advantage in a world where software is everything and everything is software.

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