Don't worry, the best app developers won't live with their moms forever

Shane Schick

In the countercultural 1960s, the catchphrase among Flower Children used to be "turn on, tune in, drop out." Today, it might better be described as "turn on, tune in, make apps."

There was actually something rather refreshing in a recent post on the Harvard Business Review blog called, "Why do app developers still live with their moms?" by Jerry Davis. Instead of the usual rah-rah about the opportunities presented by apps and the ease of entry into the market, the Wilbur K. Pierpont professor of management at the Ross School of Business explores the dark side of self-taught entrepreneurialism. What happens, for example, when young people pin their hopes on becoming an overnight app store hit and let their homework slide?

"The reward system for app developers follows a familiar "winner take all" pattern ... where a few outstanding successes capture huge returns while those not lucky enough to reach the top see very little. In this way, the industry parallels drug dealing," Davis writes. "Encouraging kids to blow off schoolwork to write apps, or skip college to become entrepreneurs, is like advising them to take their college money and invest it in PowerBall. A few may win big; many or most will end up living with their moms."

I don't necessarily disagree with Davis' main point, though I'm not sure I'd equate app making with drug dealing, and I think the risk is just as real for those who skip classes to audition for American Idol. Our culture is awash in the fantasy that anyone can become a superstar and the failure to recognize that there is a big difference in "can" and "will." There have always been kids whose dreams of being a pro baseball player turned into the hope spending more time on the field would mean a short-cut from their studies. Apps are just a new manifestation of that kind of dream.

What Davis and other critics may not realize is that there are just as many app developers who aren't kids but grownups with established jobs who do this work as a sideline. They probably don't expect to make it big, but they do it out of a personal passion. Sadly, that passion is one of the things we often stifle in young people as they pursue their favorite activities, whether it's discouraging them from painting pictures because they'll never be the next Picasso or suggesting they drop dance for economics because they have as much chance of getting accepted into a top ballet company as a young developer's app does of being "Featured" by Apple or Google.

We might see fewer teenagers counting on becoming a blockbuster app developer if it wasn't still regarded as a sort of accidental profession. Yes, there's coding camps and hackathons to provide some training, but what will it take for schools--even high schools--to help educate the next generation of developers on what it takes to not only create an app but understand how to market them, build an audience and monitor their results? How many guidance counsellors suggest "app developer" as a viable career option today? There's a lot of creativity and fulfillment to be had in making apps. It's time to invest in the training so we can treat it as more of a true calling and less of a shot in the dark.--Shane