The great unbundling of the tech stack and developer learning

Dave Maclean

February 19th, 2018

The nineties: the large software vendors dominate

When I started my first tech publisher, Wrox, back in 1994, tech was dominated by a few large IT vendors: IBM, Oracle, SAP, DEC [!], CA. The insurgent company was Microsoft, and the disruptive technology was Unix. Microsoft grew out from their ownership of the desktop back into the enterprise, and had a uniquely open strategy to encourage a third party developer ecosystem. Unix was an open ecosystem from the start. Both of these created a window for start-up tech publishers like Wrox and O’Reilly to get started. No-one had ever published a profitable book on an IBM tool, say DB2.  IBM had that whole world locked down with a vertically integrated model across hardware, software, services and education.

 The research firm IDC has at various times modelled the total value of IT software and services spending in the US at $100bn - $200bn, and IT training to be about 2-5% of this total, usually bundled in with the total package. [An old version of IDC analysis] The “hidden” market for IT skills training, both for users and for developers, bundled in with closed vendor ecosystems was an estimated $5bn - $10bn in the US alone. SAP Education claims to train 500,000 customers and implementers each year. 

The impact of the internet

 Then the internet arrived.

 The internet is a machine for unbundling everything. By joining everyone and everything for zero marginal cost the internet relentlessly breaks companies, industries, products and services into independent functional elements. All media business models have been unravelling for years, well-documented by the excellent Ben Thompson in his Stratechery Blog. More on the next 10 years of unbundling is mapped on the incomparable CBinsights Trends report.

 In parallel, unbundling is also happening to IT vendor stacks. We’re moving relentlessly away from one vendor, and all projects toward a dynamic stack mix, project by project.

 The internet is both the driver and enabler of this great unbundling.

As every aspect of our lives moves online, every organisation is becoming a network of software systems. Nobody nails this concept better than Marc Andreesen in his classicSoftware is Eating the World. The only way to meet this demand is to break free of a vertical vendor stack. SAP might make great accounting software but who wants customer facing apps from SAP?

From the point of view of software development, the internet has been a story of relentless atomisation. The internet itself grew out of the granddaddy of all open platforms, Unix. Open source exploded in the 2000s as the global community of developers built shared tools and code together.  We started Packt in 2003 to publish books for open source developers. We saw that in a friction-free world, tools would become more fragmented and specialised, and would need a new business model for niche technical content.  

Open source tools try and do one job well, leaving developers to assemble specific solutions, case-by-case.  Cloud and micro-services follow the same logic. There’s a nice timeline here from CapGemini. This podcast from a16z is a good take on the emerging world of micro services, and has a great quote from Chris Dixon, saying how many cloud and micro-services start-ups are offering one old school Unix shell command as a whole company.

The impact on the way developers learn

Clearly where the tech stack unbundles, so does developer learning. If your project has a dozen elements from different vendors, you’ve got two learning problems. Firstly, you have to navigate the developer support and training centres from each project and vendor. Secondly, you have to work out how the tech fits together.

It’s the logic of unbundling that is creating the market for developer eLearning that big players like Pluralsight and Lynda have surged into over the last 5-8 years. Get all your learning across the stack from one place. Pluralsight are probably growing at 50% YonY and cover all vendors, all stacks in one place. Consistently our top titles at Packt show developers how to combine tools and technologies together, ensuring developer learning matches the way software is actually created.

At Packt, we think that the market for developer eLearning globally is around $1-$3bn today and will double over the next 5 years as learning peels away from the closed vendor worlds. That’s the market we're playing in, along with more and more innovative competitors. But in the same way as CIOs now have to curate an open ecosystem of technology, so each developer has to curate their own ecosystem of learning.

And if software is unbundling, there is a need for analysis, insight and curation to help developers and CIOs make sense of it. Packt, and its online learning platform Mapt, aim to help make sense of this fragmented landscape.

There’s a big question lurking behind this: is the emergence of public clouds like AWS with a rich aggregation of micro-services a return to a closed vendor ecosystem? But that’s for another discussion...