The Alchemist

The Software Alchemist

Alan Cooper


I’ve been a software professional since 1973, well over 40 years, working at my own companies for all but a few months. I’ve designed, written, and sold most every kind of software there is. All that time I’ve struggled to find a professional title for myself. Although “Programmer” is a enduring favorite, it doesn’t nearly encompass what I do. Similarly, “Designer” is a little too confining. For many years I called myself a “Software Author,” simply because nobody else did and I hoped that it would highlight that I did things differently.

Finally, just a few years ago, a colleague, Christie Dames (who happens to be a technology marketing professional) referred to me as a “Software Alchemist.” At first, the rationalist in me rebelled against that, as though she had called me an “Astrologer” or “Necromancer.” But then I realized how entirely apt the term was because software shares important traits with alchemy. One dictionary defines alchemy as, “a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination.” That’s about as perfect a description of software as I can imagine. Since then I have used the title “Software Alchemist,” and that is how this blog got its name.

One dictionary defines alchemy as, “a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination.” That’s about as perfect a description of software as I can imagine.

In my 1999 book, “The Inmates are Running the Asylum,” I pose a riddle for the twenty-first century: What do you get when you cross a toaster with a computer? Conventional, industrial-age logic tells you that you get a more intelligent, more capable, more functional toaster. But what you really get is a computer with heated bread slots. The nature of the device is so affected by digital technology that it no longer behaves like a toaster, or even like a toaster with benefits. Rather, it behaves like every other computer in our lives, albeit with the ability to toast bread. It is obstinate, fragile, temperamental, implacable, unrevealing of its state, and can appear to be coldly vengeful in all its actions.

Of course, with significant attention to designing the toaster’s behavior, those unpleasant characteristics can be mitigated, but only by applying the same level of skill and effort that complex, software-empowered systems demand, rather than the much simpler methods demanded by making mechanical toasters.

The point is that the addition of software changes the essential nature of the toaster, and that is exactly what software does to everything it touches. And not only is the toaster itself changed, but the nature of the company that makes the toaster changes, and eventually, the nature of the people who purchase and use it changes too. Software utterly transforms everything and anything it touches.

Software utterly transforms everything and anything it touches.

Let me give a detailed example to show what I mean. Approximately 40 years ago the publishing business was a staid, established, unchanging edifice of hundred-plus-year-old companies staffed and managed in well-worn ways. Then, slowly at first, the digital revolution began to affect it.

At first, it was just the communications media: authors began to submit manuscripts in electronic documents, and publishers began to submit page proofs to printers electronically. Next, the publishing houses learned that the editing process could be improved by using word processors instead of red pens. The entire process of submission and approval began to change as the medium digitized. Email became the mechanism for editorial review, and the process was much speeded up.

At the same time, digital technology itself was becoming a much larger industry. Computers and software were so complicated and difficult they required lots of explanatory books and documentation. Newer upstart publishers that only sold technical manuals shipped as many titles — and far more volume — as the hoary old Manhattan marques with their quaint novels. The 1980s and 1990s in publishing were decades of upheaval and corporate acquisition. Growth was so fast that the publishers of “Dummies” and “Idiots” books were hiring top-tier talent away from the establishment. Soon they were buying entire companies. Hallowed names were swallowed up: Farrar, Straus, Houghton-Mifflin, Macmillan, Prentice Hall, Simon & Schuster, Addison-Wesley, Scribner all disappeared into the history books or were resurrected with all new owners, offices, staff, and mission.

As this was happening, the printers were automating their equipment, and the days of typesetting were over. Hardcover books now came straight off presses from digital input. The design of books was done by pixel-pushers inside the publishing houses and the old graphic artists learned to use layout software or retired.

Even the culture changed. The new publishing companies were now software companies more than they were literary organizations, with a concomitant belief in streamlining the path to market along with an entrepreneurial, creative spirit, something the old houses never cared much about. Manuscripts were rushed from author to digital press in record time. The slow, contemplative, intellectual culture of the old publishing houses wasn’t something the new houses cared much about, and it disappeared.

Then came the Internet with yet another wave of change sweeping the publishing business. In the old days, the pace of publishing was metered by the pace of marketing; of advertising campaigns and catalogs and retail distribution. As marketing and retail moved to the Web with banner ads and Amazon, everything started to happen at once. Once again, the cycle of publishing sped up reshuffling once again the power and influence of the players.

Then, authors discovered that they could communicate with their readers directly via Web blogs. Not only was this a way to speak to readers directly, but an author could listen to them, too. And communicating directly was very effective marketing. Soon authors began to write blogs instead of writing books. Of course, the opposite happened also, as publishers approached popular bloggers to write books.

By the turn of the century publishing was almost unrecognizably different from the way it was just a couple of decades earlier. The few old corporate names still around were entirely new companies using historical names solely for their marketing panache.

As you can see, the effects of software on the publishing industry were primal, existential, and happened repeatedly in waves of disruption. The same is true for all industries, although probably not quite as visibly dramatic. Publishing makes a good example simply because it lives at the crossroads of so many practices that were digitized early in the digital age. My brief and incomplete summary of the changes above don’t even mention the most recent movement from the printed page to the purely electronic delivery of books directly to a reader’s digital device.

Two hundred years ago industrialization drove a similar kind of metamorphosis as digitization, but at only a fraction of the magnitude and a fraction of the speed. If you enquire, you can see how every industry, every practice, every discipline is altered at some essential level the same way that publishing was. My yoga instructor couldn’t survive without her cell phone and website. My friends who run a wood-fired mobile pizza service could not prosper without digital tools to manage their business. Everyone is affected.

For example, a 100-year-old company in the Midwest that makes wrenches has historically been in the business of making steel drop-forging processes more efficient. Today, their business is dominated by digitally dispatching their sales trucks to customers’ businesses as quickly as possible and by digitally managing their complex, international supply chain. Yes, they still drop-forge wrenches, but that part of their business has become a commodity and is no longer an arena where they might distinguish themselves as different or superior.

These days I play the alchemy game, where I try to find the digital disruption in people’s lives. I ask people I meet what line of work they are in, and then I probe gently to find how software has altered their business. Sometimes it takes awhile but the smoking gun of software always reveals itself. Software transmutes everything it touches. People who use it are changed and businesses that rely on it are changed. And enterprises are not just doing what they did faster or better (although that is often what is imagined) but they are changing on a more heartfelt level.

I am proud to be labelled a Software Alchemist, because I am intimately connected with driving these changes wherever I go. I rate myself a pretty good programmer, having worked as a self-employed programmer for many years. Ditto for why I rate myself a pretty good designer. But I have worked alongside designers and programmers who are far better than I could ever hope to be. I will never be a Jony Ive or Gary Kildall. However, in my job I connect the work of great programmers to the work of great designers. By helping to change the practice of both I make the results of their work better for everyone. The value I bring is as a bridge, a communicator, and a catalyst. The alchemist encourages the transformation of matter, while I encourage the transformation of practice.

The most meaningful advances in business management in the last 25 years have come from neither business managers nor business management academics. Instead they are bottom-up initiatives invented by those who practice the design, development, and deployment of digital artifacts.

The twin practices of software design and software development have changed dramatically in the last couple of decades. Both have invented work paradigms that have fundamentally altered the way we create digital artifacts. Because most such artifacts are commercial in nature, those paradigms also alter the way we organize and manage commercial organizations, and those changes have been strikingly relevant. In other words, the most meaningful advances in business management in the last 25 years have come from neither business managers nor business management academics. Instead they are bottom-up initiatives invented by those who practice the design, development, and deployment of digital artifacts. In particular flat, lean, and agile.

The 1990s movement away from deep hierarchies and command-and-control towards flatter, more collaborative organizations came from engineer-led companies. The more recent movement toward agile collaborative teams is the direct outcome of developers and designers trying to find a way to work together effectively despite management’s intrusion. The latest movement towards minimal investment and self-direction are the result of lean entrepreneurial teams trying to discover unmet markets before even their customers are aware of their own needs.

To be a part of this revolution is to be an alchemist, a catalyst for transformation, and to convert software to gold.

You can read about my company’s mission and culture here.

There’s always good, practical stuff to read on Cooper’s blog, The Journal.



Alan Cooper

Ancestry Thinker, Software Alchemist, Regenerative Rancher