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Will Programmers Rule?

NEW DELHI – Marc Andreessen made his first fortune writing the code that became Netscape Navigator, the Internet browser. He is now a venture capitalist who evangelizes about the growing importance of software in business today. Indeed, he proclaims that software is taking over the world – that it will be the primary source of added value – and offers the following prediction: the global economy will one day be divided between people who tell computers what to do and people who are told by computers what to do.

Andreessen’s aim is to shock his listeners – not just for effect, but to get them to do something about it. To stop the world from being divided between a few alpha programmers and many drones, he wants the potential drones to stop taking easy liberal arts courses in college. Instead, he wants them to focus on courses in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), where the good jobs will be. But will this solve the problem that he poses?

Perhaps not. Two attributes of software creation allow a few talented programmers to corner the market and take all the associated profits. First, software with a slight edge tends to get a significantly greater share of the available market; and, second, the available market is global, because it costs so little to make an extra copy and send it anywhere in the world. As a result, those who are creative and competent enough to write that slightly better search engine will capture the global market.

In this winner-take-all environment, only a small number of those who have taken programming courses will reap a majority of the rents. Completing the right preparatory courses is no guarantee of receiving a share of the software jackpot. Differences in luck and talent among those equally prepared will ensure that the quality of software firms’ products lies on a bell curve, with only a few Googles and Facebooks and many more bored, moderately paid computer technicians helping the average confused person deal with malware.