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Bits & Atoms

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Bits & Atoms

We’re living in a world of bits. 

As a computer science guy, I have long been intrigued by the intersection of business and digital technologies. I refer to it as the “bit business.” For me this played out by starting a software company and teaching computer science at the college level for 30 years. It allowed me to observe firsthand the impact bits are having on business development. 

To help my students understand this world of bits, I would often compare and contrast bits with something we’re all familiar with from science class—atoms. Atoms make up everything in this world that is physical; bits play a similar role in the digital world. Everything that is digital consists of ones and zeros, binary digits (bits), digital music, videos, software, phone apps, medical information, webpages, GPS information, satellite radio, internet streaming: the list is endless. 

Atoms are expensive to replicate, but bits replicate freely. Things made of atoms wear out and break; bits never do, although they become obsolete rather quickly. One of the challenges with things made of atoms is transporting them from one place to another; bits transport almost effortlessly through the air or across the wire.

Consider some recent news. Sears, which was once one of the largest distributors of atom-based goods, has now filed for bankruptcy. In our day, some of the largest companies in the history of the world—think Google, eBay, Amazon, and Instagram—don’t actually produce a single physical product. Everything they do is done with bits. And they make billions. 

I believe this is one of the most massive shifts that has ever happened in our economy. It is imperative for you as a young person to gain an understanding of digital technologies. Learning how to code is one way to do this. 

Within coding, you need to understand the difference between programmers (also called coders) and software developers. Think of it this way: in the construction world, you have framers and general contractors. Framers get the skeleton of the house ready. In the world of bits, that’s the programmer. They are a vital part of the process of building software. They learn a language (or more than one) and know how to look at plans (specifications) and write the code necessary to execute the plans. This is roughly analogous to a framer who knows how to look at plans and erect wooden structures.

Software developers know how to code, just like a general contractor knows how to frame a building, but their understanding of the entire process of what it takes to go from concept to working software is much deeper. This is roughly analogous to a general contractor who understands everything it takes to start and finish a building project. One can successfully code without a college degree; a software developer generally requires a degree in computer science or computer engineering.

Due to the increasing importance of bits, software developer jobs in the United States are growing at an astonishing rate: a projected 24%! Programmer jobs in the US are decreasing (a projected 7% decline) due to the ability of programmers to work from anywhere in the world. Companies can hire programmers living in lower wage countries, thus driving the global value of programmers down. But this trend may reverse as it is expensive to manage projects with people living in various countries.

The world of bits is an exciting one and it IS the future!

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