The future of business software will put users front and centre

Today, quantum computing and AI; yesterday, cloud and blockchain. As sure as Moore’s law, there is always a Next Big Thing

The rise of cloud services and internet connectivity means that (almost) all business solutions are now software. Developers are fortunate to live in a time where there is a steady flow of new tools to support the creative development process. They empower engineers to experiment with ideas, which is ultimately a great thing for the end-user.

However, it is essential to thoroughly evaluate new solutions before jumping on the bandwagon, and technology is not the only ingredient for successful business software development. Equally important is a commitment to its purpose, the process, and accompanying culture.

Purpose: Tech for humans’ sake will prosper

Tomorrow’s stand-out business software won’t be defined by the latest technology but the customer problem it solves. This has always been (and will continue to be) the case. For example, in the early Noughties, I led a team at Sky that pioneered its interactive TV ‘red button’. For the first time, for example, viewers could order a pizza using their remote control.

It was successful as it solved a real (albeit luxurious) customer problem of interrupting the viewing experience by having to call a local restaurant and reading out payment details over the phone.

Before smartphones and the burgeoning digital TV landscape, this tech was essentially a little box that sat underneath your TV that ran software programs. The lesson is not to get blindsided by fantastic technology; it is simply a means to deliver purpose.

Process: Greater balance between speed and sustainability

Process is as influential as purpose in setting apart a software provider or SaaS solution. In software development, the process can mean determining the efficiency of its architecture, as well as how engineering teams work together — and as part of the wider business.

Taking efficiency as an example, on a macro-level, growth-led software companies have traditionally prioritised speed – getting the product out the door – over efficient architecture underpinning solutions.

This works when a business is at an early stage and the priority is to deliver features as quickly as possible. However, it is only viable when infrastructure costs are minimal. As technology estates grow in complexity and usage, the maintenance costs, as well as the difficulty in updating the software become significant.

Another example of how process can impact the success of SaaS products relates to project organisation and management. Businesses have already adopted the agile squad model of working, which has seemingly become the industry-standard approach.

This involves assembling an autonomous cross-functional team to work on a specific problem. The squad can include a product person, designer, and engineers, for example, and the perceived barriers between different teams and departments are removed for a more holistic and collaborative approach. The team has everything it needs to make progress, leading to faster and better product development.

Companies that have yet to transition to this (or a similar approach) risk being left behind by competitors that can roll out products faster and better.

Culture: Tech stacks might become an HR choice

You cannot talk about workforce approaches and not mention company culture. A global shortage of software developers means companies will have to work smarter to attract the best talent.

Tech stack design depends on the unique needs of a business. For many companies, this will likely mean the use of public cloud technologies, like Amazon’s AWS as it allows engineers to roll out new features quickly, is well supported, and enables businesses to standardise to industry best practice.

It also means companies can hire from a bigger talent pool. At a time when finding and keeping talent is a constant issue, the right tech stack can make a difference in recruitment and retention. Using common backend services, like AWS, enables new recruits to start developing with minimal onboarding. If your tech stack is desirable to potential candidates, then you are a desirable employer.

I must caveat this approach by pointing out that technology constantly evolves, so stacks should not be static. It will be essential for CTOs to give their teams the space and ‘permission’ to experiment and introduce new technology.

Which brings me to why having an ethos of continual improvement is critical. Adopting a growth mindset is more important than any technology stack, branding, or end product. Development is a creative process and you are only as good as the people creating the software.

The jury is still out on how hybrid working will impact software development long term. Though technology and processes (many introduced during Covid lockdowns) have made remote working easier, there is no substitute for teams coming together on occasion. It is certain, however, that only companies that allow flexibility will retain the best talent.

Plus ça change

The more things change, the more things stay the same. There is a lot of hyperbole surrounding AI’s seemingly sudden march on existing technology, not to mention our jobs.

Wanting to jump on the AI bandwagon is understandable. Generative AI, especially, is already helping engineers to become more efficient by identifying issues with code or  creating code from scratch. However, it will likely produce an incremental difference rather than wholesale changes to a person’s job.

More interesting is how you can use AI to make sense of vast data and give insight and personalisation we could never have imagined. There are some incredible examples of how marketers are utilising AI to crawl the web and pull together a comprehensive competitor analysis.

Over a career spanning many Next Big Things — the growth of the internet, cloud computing, and mobile connectivity to name a few — I have learnt that the best approach is to evaluate and adapt.

My advice is to not cut yourself on the sharp end of tech. Throughout history, the winners in business software development have been those who have carefully grasped exciting new technology while maintaining an unrelenting focus on end-user needs.

Richard Rosenberg is group chief product and technology officer at Spendesk. He was previously CTO at the FT and prior to that, a vice president of technology at Expedia Group.

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