My Thinking is NOT for Sale

Its 2 o’clock in the morning and I am finding I cannot sleep. A thought that is so off the wall has been gripping my mind for a while now and I am finding it more and more relevant to what I have seen happen during my career as a programmer.

The title is worth restating:

My Thinking is NOT for Sale

This is not so much a shouted response to all those times that good technical effort has been driven carelessly under the steamroller of prevailing economic needs – usually those of the money swallowing monsters that are most companies – than it is a statement of an underlying truth, if only I can express it well enough and in shorter sentences. So here goes…

If you pay for software you will not get what you need. In fact you CANNOT buy software because it is not a finished product. The current economic model we have just does not fit and I believe this is why there is so much trouble in this area.

What is important about good software development?

Over my 30 odd years of work the primary creative and energizing point has been the interaction between the developer and the actual user as a system has come into being. The best of it has been the conversation between the two as they navigate the area of the user’s needs. If the developer is skilled, both technically and personally, they help facilitate both parties in mapping an unknown area, probably only vaguely expressed in the “wants” that the user can currently identify.

This is a conversation of human discovery in thinking.

It is priceless.

It is a gift.

It is a Free process. Capital F.

It cannot be bought.
It cannot be sold.
It is NOT a product.

It only makes sense if the effort is freely given by the developer. The inner costs of doing this are so high that it requires a high level of motivation that can ONLY be internal. To try and shoehorn it into our current ways of thinking about money devalues the process and I think this is what is underlying the problems I have seen happen many times.

The kicker here is that it is likely that it can only be funded by gift money. That means that there can be NO LINK between the funding and the final “product”. I use quotes because that word is a misnomer of what is actually going on.


Just go and read a book called Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson and you will see how the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study was funded by donation. This was where John von Neumann worked and developed the architecture that underlies modern computers.

The picture of how the whole current edifice of modern computing was birthed from gift money just blows me away. I find my thinking so bound up in the capitalist model that to separate the resource – i.e. the money to give time for people to think – from the product of that thinking in such a way shows up the illusion of the current funding models for such work.

Is that enough to allow you to see it? Truly?
If you can then maybe you might understand why I am having trouble sleeping because in my tossing and turning my feelings tell me it could change everything…

Or maybe this is all just a dream and I shall be sensible when I wake up.

8 thoughts on “My Thinking is NOT for Sale

  1. Hi Charles. A very thought-provoking post, as I have come to expect from you.

    I see the problem as one that affects all creative endeavours. The capitalist model is based around the exchange of discrete “finished products” (including services) which are implied to have innate value. Taking software as an example, the value exists in the creative process itself; the end result may be replicated endlessly for next to nothing. To arbitrarily assign the value of its creation to the end product (be it an application or some equivalent) is to further disconnect from reality. And as the system moves further from representing the real world, from reflecting the actual costs and rewards, it starts to malfunction.

    I have more thoughts but I will need to reflect on this at greater length.

    • Thanks Alex. You make some great points, and as you say – more reflection is required. I have found it useful to make this post so I can get my thoughts moved on a bit further. All the best.

  2. Isn’t this what academia is for? Post Doc researchers are supposed to have time to think … without (*as many*) commercial pressures. TCP/IP etc came out of (military funded) government sponsorship – and has born massive fruit. Government funding paid for CERN – which offered the WWW to the world. Cloudant ( have open sourced BigCouch (a highly available version of CouchDB). There had their time whilst thinking paid for by the MIT Physics dept. There are loads of examples …

    • Hi James
      Yes there definitely is greater freedom in academia, although I still do not believe it to be as free of financial pressure as it is purported to be. Certainly not in the current financial climate. The military will also naturally be expecting a payback for all the money they put into research so you cannot get away from the money feeling it can call the tune. Von Neumann of course was doing military work which definitely took effort away from subjects he and his colleagues found more interesting, some of which, if pursued, would have had far more profound implications for technology.

      As soon as economic interests get involved ideas get frozen and von Neumann himself highlighted the problems with the computer architecture named after him. He pointed out that most of the time would be spent getting the data around the system compared to actually doing any processing – sound familiar? The further work he wanted to do was not followed up as more money oriented thinking took hold at Princeton.

      What I am trying to get at is that software development, and other similar knowledge work, is I think incompatible with paid, product-oriented thinking. In our current capitalistic culture I think it is almost impossible for us to get our heads around how this could be different – hence my sleeplessness. Surely if we pay money we should get something back? But you cannot pay for someone to think along a certain way – I am starting to see that it is just not relevant. Thought is by nature free. This is independent of whether we work in business or academia.

      I am hoping that by properly understanding the human aspect of such work, in this case the concept of a true freedom of thinking, then we may be able to identify better business models.

      As Alex says, more thought is definitely needed…

      • Hi Charles,
        Would it help if we could think of software as contributing to and enhancing the way we work?
        Might we be less often disappointed and frustrated, as we seem to be by each new version of a product?
        Could funding by subscription or rent help with the economics? Would that fit, or fail?
        This post prompted me to read a bit more about Deming, thank you.

      • Hi Bob,
        (I reply at last)
        Thanks for you comment.

        That is the next step of my thinking. I had thought of it needing a gift funded foundation with a vision of developing technology that leaves people truly free to do the job they have to do. This means making something that has the quality of being transparent as possible. This does not mean that it is only usable by beginners, but experts too. The point here is to increase the freedom of the user in doing their job.

        I think this vision is at odds with the profit motive. My experience has been that it is rare that one gets the time to ‘sweeten’ a system, except possibly in small ways. Of course this must be kept in check otherwise nothing might ever get shipped, but the direct user contact should stop that.

        The other main point I wanted to make was to break the link between profit and the search for the best solution, i.e. the one that leaves the user free in the way I have described. We are not in a domain where users can know the pitfalls of simply being able to demand a system that ‘does what they want’ because ‘we are paying for it’. Technically I have found this a most demotivating stance when there has been a blatant disregard for the reality of the technical limitations.

        So any funding model that means you are truly ‘gifting’ should work, because of this disparity between the aims of the profit motive and the aim of producing the best solution. I don’t believe there are any partial answers here. If the profit motive is in there anywhere it will skew the whole enterprise. You can see that from the need to ship new versions of software to keep the companies in business.

        I have buried these thoughts for many years and it was only on reading deeper about von Neumann that my thinking started to exhume these ideas.

        I know this is not an easy nut to crack!

        Thanks again

  3. Mind blowing revelations – but is not true in almost any job, that to do things well you need abstract yourself from the monetary reward and add that bit of yourself – your experience and skills? Coming back to software development – over the years I have experienced similar findings that the interaction between ‘creator’ and user moves things consciously or even unconsciously forward. What almost opens a question – are we really creating software as a new value or just discovering facts in some kind of research (exploratory) process and coding the knowledge into the programming environment?
    We can probably take the matter further and discuss whether current formal methods and working principles really create that desired value in the software engineering? Are we not trying just to mock that it is about our personal responsibility instead of various methodologies?

    • Hi Pavol,
      Good to hear from you.

      I definitely fall into the ‘personal responsibility’ camp of people and one of my big concerns is about the quality of what we produce when under economic pressure. We can probably make something function well, but it is too easy to let the economics overshadow the concerns about the impact of what we create on the ‘freedom’ of users. Making a system which leaves users free to think only about their work and not the system, always requires a lot more time and is rarely considered to be economically viable – unless you have visionary business management.

      I also think that you make a good point about methodologies taking precedence over the personal aspects, which is a consequence of that economic, measuring, thinking.

      Thanks for the comment.

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