Why Engineers Will Never Be a Commodity


Software has evolved to the point where products can be built by taking Lego-like components and assembling them into a whole. So that begs the questions: Are engineers becoming a commodity? After all, the use of available modules to build solutions means startups require less capital to get going and engineers don’t need to have the same depth of knowledge in some areas as they used to. As Sam Gerstenzang, partner at Andreessen Horowitz, put it:

An individual can now scale a web app to millions of users with Digital Ocean, Heroku and AWS (perhaps coordinated by Mesosphere). It no longer requires a sophisticated understanding of MySQL parameters to scale a database on Google App Engine, just as it no longer requires a knowledge of the CPU chip it’s all chugging away on.

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So companies can be built with fewer engineers, right? Indeed, Gerstenzang foresees a time when acquisitions are made that don’t include any engineers at all.

Not so fast, says Mike Kavis, vice president and principal architect for Cloud Technology Partners. Writing at Forbes, he says:

Sure a developer can go to AWS, create a multi-region auto-scaling database, deploy a LAMP stack and get all of the major pieces of an application up and running in hours. Standing up infrastructure and application software equals high scalability about as much as dropping off a truckload of tools and equipment at a construction site equals a house.

Kavis says Gerstenzang’s idea trivializes the hard work—not to mention the long hours—engineers at companies like Tumblr, Pinterest and WhatsApp have put in to get the scaling right. Empowered to make decisions and unencumbered with legacy technology, they have done amazing things—by starting with ideas and applying their brainpower to make them work, often pushing technology beyond where it could be expected to go.

“We may be headed to a future where robots can do many of the tasks that we do ourselves today, but we are a long way from replacing the need for brilliant engineers,” he writes. “There is no Lego for brilliance.”

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4 Responses to “Why Engineers Will Never Be a Commodity”

  1. I can see that Sam Gerstenzang makes a false statement saying that engineers are becoming a commodity. He focuses on a very small sector of engineering; matter of fact, those that code are programmers and not engineers per say and in fact, there are programmers with no engineering degree or background which can do pretty good programing. In the world of programming for the IT industry, and as time goes by, more solutions are being available for doing the work within the IT industry; however, that is not all the world for engineers. We have civil engineers, mechanical, electrical, etc., and within every engineering discipline there are specialties such as structural engineers which is part of civil engineering; fluids mechanical engineers is another example. In the electrical engineering discipline there are the following specialties: Digital design engineer, Analog design engineer, RF engineers, Power (High and Low) engineers, Aerospace engineers; Communications engineers which is part of Electrical Engineering (EE); Telemetry engineers also in the EE department and I can go on and on. All the engineering disciplines need a high degree of knowledge in Physics and Mathematics being some more demanding than others; so, do you think that engineers are becoming a commodity?
    Also, and to be clear, there are hardware engineers and software engineers (Computer science in the EE department) and those software engineers are the ones designing the software to use by computers and other machines which are the realm of electrical engineers (hardware). One cannot do without the other. What about the Space and Defense programs which are projects costing trillions of dollars and cannot do without engineers? We find programmers also in the Math department and Business department but those are not engineers – they are programmers.
    The world of engineering will never end as those are the people which have shaped our society. No matter where you look at it has been the work of engineers and scientists and that breed will never be obsolete or become a commodity.

  2. Susan, finally a article that states how valuable your talent is, and we are not all cogs in a machine, but unique, and not a reproducible easily replaced assembly line made tool. I hope that an Engineer builds a company that puts Gerstenzang’s company out of business. Sure I worked in IT, and I am not a developer, nor have I invented any thing that I can patent, but one of my idea’s may have made a company a billion dollars, I just don’t get the credit for it.

    Sincerely, Jose F. Medeiros
    The Unemployed IT Guy!