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Memo to kid coders: Enterprise software exists

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Open...and Shut If you live or spend time in Silicon Valley, it's easy to forget that enterprise software exists, or that it still drives $245 billion in annual revenue, according to Gartner.

Google, Facebook, and a rising generation of consumer-facing startups get the media buzz, to the point that young developers have neither an interest in enterprise software nor an appreciation for the challenges it has long sought to solve – but could this be a good thing?

This generational shift hit home while having lunch with my 20-something developer colleagues this week. I mentioned BEA Systems and got blank looks all around. I persisted, "You know, the app server company???" Vacant expressions. "Java?!? You've heard of that, right!?"

"Is it like JavaScript?"

I made that last one up, but the rest is accurate. They launch their applications directly on the web, as ZenDesk COO Zack Urlocker reminded me. They don't use app servers in the same way that an old-school enterprise might. Heck, these developers were born completely on the web, and have never worked in a traditional enterprise. They don't have the context to grok what anyone would need enterprise software for.

(Note to my BEA-deprived colleagues and others: here's a history lesson on BEA.)

Aaron Levie, founder and CEO of Box.net, hones in on this as the reason so many young developers reject the enterprise: they simply have no context for understanding it.

When you're 22 years old or 25 years old – the Y Combinator demographic – you have no context for the enterprise. If you're in your early 20s and you're hanging out with a bunch of other people in their early 20s, nobody has a sense of the kinds of problems that "real workers" run into every day. They're running into a completely different set of problems like "what's the party going on right now that I should be going to? What are my friends looking at on the Internet that I want to read? How do I share photos and videos?" That's their frame of reference for life.

This has always been the case, of course, but the difference is that younger developers actually have a choice, and the easier choice is consumer/web. Sure, IBM and Microsoft still scavenge college campuses for would-be recruits, but those recruits already are spoiled for choice with open-source tools and the ability to program directly onto Amazon's cloud.

The traditional enterprise software companies, in other words, are reaching their prospective employees too late.

Besides, it's easier to learn a scripting language like PHP than it is to master Java or .Net. And given the sorts of problems these young developers are likely to need to solve, as Levie points out, it's no wonder they choose a lightweight, task-appropriate path like JavaScript rather than a heavy tool like Java.

All of which means we may be starving the enterprise of the industry's best developers. It could also mean, as former Facebook research scientist Jeff Hammerbacher once said, "the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks."

However, all may not be doom and gloom. After all, eventually 20-somethings become 30- and 40-somethings, and will likely work in big enterprises (like Google, which has over 20,000 employees). The hope, however, is that they'll bring their consumer-focused instincts to enterprise software problems, and make enterprise software much, much better. (Could it get any worse?)

This is, after all, what Levie's Box.net is doing to enterprise content management and collaboration. Box.net may not seem like the sexiest startup on the planet, but when you compare it to EMC's Documentum or even Microsoft's livelier SharePoint, Box.net's ease of use and user interface is a brilliant ray of innovative sunshine.

Other consumer-y startups are following suit, including Seesmic, a social-networking tool, taking their consumer-friendly interfaces into the enterprise. It may be too soon to call it a trend, but consumer-software startups may find the enterprise fertile ground for sales, something to seriously consider when the advertising dollars don't come one's way.

As this happens, enterprise software should become much easier to use, even if it's never exactly "sexy". So rather than fret about young developers' skew away from enterprise software, we should perhaps celebrate it. Instead of being indoctrinated in why enterprise software must be terrible because utilitarian software always is, these developers stand a good chance of challenging outdated conventions and reshaping enterprise software in their image.

It can't happen soon enough. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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