Are you providing sufficient digital leadership?

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It has been seven years since Marc Andreesen’s famous article “Why Software is Eating the World” was published in the Wall Street Journal, and given the slow pace of change in many companies, some executives still may not be taking the threat of being “eaten” seriously enough.  

Software, and platform business models based on software, have the potential to deliver powerful economic forces into virtually any company or industry. Every company has valuable assets—such as data, expertise or access to certain services or user bases—and most of these assets can be delivered via software. Once an asset is expressed as software in a modern way—that is, as an application programming interface (API)—it can be combined with other software to create new applications and digital experiences. 

Benefits of this approach, just to name a few, include near-zero marginal cost to scale up APIs for new users or use cases; global reach for both partners using APIs and end users consuming the digital experiences those APIs power; and network effects triggered as more partners use a given company’s digital assets and spread its services into new markets and use cases. 

Disruption by software-powered business models

In the last two decades we’ve seen individual companies and entire industries upended by these kinds of software-powered business models. Examples abound: Amazon and the retail industry, Netflix and movie rentals, Uber and ride hailing, Airbnb and hotels, etc. We’ve reached the point that these companies’ names have become verbs synonymous with being “eaten” by software (e.g., “Amazoned” or “Netflixed”).

The most famous examples of digital disruption involve digital natives, of course, but legacy businesses are leveraging software to evolve too. Brazilian retailer Magazine Luiza—a company I’ve worked with through my employer, Google Cloud’s Apigee team—has enjoyed enormous revenue growth and seen its stock soar, for example, as it has built out its digital platform capabilities and transitioned from a primarily brick-and-mortar model to an omnichannel one. The point is, whether a company has been in business five decades, five years or five months, software remains ravenous and is always looking for new companies and industries to “eat.”

Change in the face of serious threats

Facing this threat, how should corporate leadership respond? There are some excellent examples of CEOs who have galvanized their companies and led them through the massive, gut-wrenching change required to pivot in the face of a serious threat. A few of the biggest examples include: 

  • In 1995, it became apparent to Microsoft co-founder and then-CEO Bill Gates that the internet was “the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC,” and, if not embraced in haste, a threat to many of Microsoft’s businesses. In May of that year he published the “The Internet Tidal Wave” memo and focused all of Microsoft on adopting and building for the internet. Almost 20 years later, current Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella similarly made the bold decision to redirect the company for a cloud-first world. 
  • Facebook went public at $38 per share in May of 2012 but within months, stocks could be had for a little over half that. The concern? Facebook was a desktop-optimized website without a polished mobile presence, and by 2012, consumer attention had begun to accelerate towards mobile at a much higher rate than many initially predicted.  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reacted by not only proclaiming Facebook a mobile-first company, but also backing up that proclamation with action.  
  • Turning to another company I’ve worked with via Apigee, T-Mobile launched its highly visible “Uncarrier” campaign—which offers streamlined, customer-friendly plans and services—while also investing in and executing a new IT vision dedicated to ongoing digital transformation. T-Mobile execs have credited the technology effort, spearheaded by CEO John Legere, with helping the company to introduce new services and better service customers. T-Mobile’s market cap has more than doubled since Legere took over in 2012.  

Keeping pace with changing customer needs

In the face of an existential threat, strong executive leadership is required to pivot the company to safety, as these examples attest. Digital transformation isn’t about deploying new technologies just to make an existing approach more efficient or to add a few new apps or features to the status quo; digital transformation is about keeping pace with changing customer needs by leveraging software platforms to continuously evolve how the business operates. This can be akin to turning an enormous ship—and a ship can’t turn very well without her captain, first mate, and other leaders showing the way.  

Research supports this. A recent Deloitte survey, for example, found that over “80 percent of respondents from digitally maturing organizations say their leaders have sufficient knowledge and ability to lead the company’s digital strategy,” compared to only “22 percent of early-stage business respondents [who] have the same belief.” Similarly, Gartner research finds that CEOs are seeking a “deeper understanding of digital business” as they shift their focus from growth in general to how technology helps them attain it.  

More recently, the onslaught of software devouring the world has been further accelerated by machine learning making everything smarter, voice interfaces changing how people interact with devices, and more. To keep pace, corporate leaders need to galvanize their companies to build and deploy software faster, make systems and data easily accessible inside and outside their companies, and improve digital experiences through not only machine learning but also constant data-driven iteration. 

Seven years after Andreesen’s editorial, the pace of digital disruption is still increasing, and so is the need for strong leadership to pivot fully into digital. Over half of the Fortune 500 has been acquired, merged or declared bankruptcy since 2000—and the companies that survive in coming years won’t be those whose leaders treat technology as an IT concern rather than a core part of the business.  

David Andrzejek, vertical solutions at Apigee, Google Cloud Platform