Do you want to save the world with code?

About a year ago, I asked the following question on Reddit:

I’m a programmer who wants to build something that society needs. Any ideas?

And one developer replied:

Tons of programmers are thinking the same thing… But, as programmers, we look at things differently. We’re looking for solutions. We’re rarely looking for problems that need a solution. So, we’ll build things for stuff that didn’t really need something built. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. Hard to find problems that can be ‘fixed’ by an application….. Still looking.

Ever since then I’m thinking about what he said. It’s possible that most programmers have a certain way of thinking, but I don’t think that this excludes us from empathizing with a general user. It’s true that most of the times developers build something for the mere fun of building something, but what should we do to build software with a high ROI (return of investment) and with a real impact?

Here’s a quote from John Sonmez’s book (Soft Skills) that got me thinking:

If you want to create a product, the first step should be to identify a specific audience that you want to target a solution for. You might have a general idea of what the problem you want to solve for that audience is, but in many cases it will take some research to find a common problem that’s either not being solved or isn’t being solved very well.

This showed me that from the very beginning I didn’t ask the right question on reddit.

So … what am I trying to say with all this?

In this world are countless problems that may be solved with the help of developers, only 0.26% of the entire population are developers (aprox. 18.5 mil in 2014) and I bet that less than 20% of developers contribute to open source projects. To make the matters worse, not all open source projects make a difference in the real world. If you are in the minority that contribute to open source projects and even if you’re not, wouldn’t you want your time spent developing to be meaningful or at least on something useful?

Sure, there may be cases where the work you do at your job has a real impact, but that doesn’t happen all that often. You could also give me a lecture about how almost every game/site/service/product does some good by easing some way the life of a user. But I beg you to be honest with yourself for a minute and analyse your current and past projects. What percentage of them had a real life impact?

Stop thinking that your first idea is the Holy Grail of ideas. Every time you start building something as a side project, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Did I brainstorm at least 10 ideas and picked the best one?
  2. Have I done the proper research on this idea?
  3. Do I know at least 10 people that would use my software?
  4. Have I told them about my software and would they really use my product?
  5. Have I really thought about the impact my project will have on society?

On my death bed I would like to think that I made a difference (in good) in this world with a software that I contributed to. Just one… at least one.

Wouldn’t you?

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