Box, GitHub and Stripe chiefs debate what old tech needs to learn from startups

"That's why you're not seeing the SAPs of the world as relevant in this new stack," says Box's CEO and co-founder.
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

SAN FRANCISCO---Any successful platform today has to pay attention to the desires of and relationship between developers and customers, based on comments from leaders at four rising enterprise tech brands.

"The shock to the system in the old economies is no one had to compete on those dimensions previously," argued Box CEO Aaron Levie, describing those dimensions as running supply chains with fewer defects, having fewer competitors, and establishing enough stores in enough locations.

Established -- or old -- tech corporations, Levie continued, are beginning to contend with up-and-coming competitors leading by innovating upon (and heavily marketing) the user experience by building on a new stack unencumbered by whatever they are creating.

"The way Google builds software is different from the way developers in the outside world build," observed Moisey Uretsky, co-founder and chief product officer for DigitalOcean. Uretsky acknowledged that developing with innovation is always complicated as turnaround cycles rapidly get shorter, making it harder to stay on top for software and hardware vendors alike.

Figuring out which apps will do well -- and then which ones will win -- is not a perfect science, admitted Stripe president John Collison.

But perhaps a formula has presented itself thanks to habits born from cloud-based and mobile technologies.

In e-commerce, Collison observed the apps that are winning with consumers are mobile-first, frictionless, one-tap apps with "remember me" experiences such as Lyft or Postmates.

"We're eliminating the checkout really," Collison quipped. He speculated a digital marketplace such as Postmates was possible before the iPhone - but it took off because the smartphone exists.

Uretsky concurred, advising "if you think you're here to build products rather than just engineer things," that is how people will end up falling in love with your products.

The cost of software development has gone down tremendously, Uretsky noted, attributing partial credit to the growth of the open source movement, which in turn has made some of the technologies deployed by the companies founded by the executives on the panel possible.

While reflecting over the previous few decades of traditional IT practices, Levie discussed how business customers had to simply work with the technology they had already invested in.

But today, that's bestowed startups with the benefit of being able to go out and ask how to solve problems without baggage, he continued.

Thus, Levie theorized that the challenge for many legacy tech companies is that when observing how consumers use apps like Uber and developers follow APIs and transactions, these processes are not traveling through legacy-made infrastructures.

"That's given the Ubers of the world to scale up instantly," Levie suggested, adding traditional enterprises are realizing they can't make those kinds of choices or move that quickly.

"People close to the line should be making the decisions," Uretsky followed up, hinting the same motivations and inspirations for tech startups comes from engineers and developers these days rather than middle management.

New developers also aren't being exposed to this "old guard," speculated GitHub CEO and co-founder Chris Wanstrath, who asked, "Do we think Jack Dorsey had experience with SAP before starting Twitter or Square?"

"That's why you're not seeing the SAPs of the world as relevant in this new stack," Levie said, explaining this domain is much more about customer experiences and where you can transact digitally.

Levie admitted companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard will find their "unique roles to play," but ultimately it will be how they deploy newer, modern tech services that will reflect how well they can adapt -- and survive -- in the long run.

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