Avdi recently asked in one of his wonderful SIGAVDI newsletters:

“I’m noticing that the topic of empathy is starting to be discussed more and more and developer circles. In retrospect, it’s strange that it has taken so long to come to the fore.”

Early tech companies were attempts to make something possible that hadn’t previous been possible. Think of Microsoft, Intel, Palm…

Turns out we’ve mostly mined out that vein – most stuff that people want to be possible, that computers can easily do, is now possible.

So we’ve switched from the problem “how do we make this possible for the very patient?” to “how do we make it convenient for a bunch of people, mostly non-programmers?”

That’s a big change in what problem we solve. That’s also a lot of the reason for the rise of Rails. Rails doesn’t help that much with making totally-new things possible, but it helps a huge amount in seeing what people like and don’t via prototyping. A Rapid Prototyping environment is a terrible way to hug the edges of what’s just barely possible on your hardware, but it’s a great way to explore the space of now-possible things and see which ones are useful, convenient or marketable.

“Make it possible” is a goal where empathy is probably useless or even counterproductive. You are looking for things people think of as impossible as your target. You don’t (yet) care if what you’re doing is useful or desirable – thinking in those terms will probably get in your way. The question is “what can we do, even though we don’t know why we care yet?”

But “make it useful to humans” is a goal that is nothing but empathy.

Our industry went through huge changes after “Microsoft” or even “Google” stopped being the next who-you-want-to-be. Now it’s companies like SnapChat, Facebook, etc. Programmers are still collectively sneering at social media companies being worth huge valuations. But making things useful is going to be a much, much bigger deal than making them possible, in the end.

“The next Microsoft” still hasn’t been fully replaced by “the next Facebook” in our heads, at least outside of the VC ecosystem. We still sneer at things that facilitate human interaction instead of new tricks in physics or abstraction. That change is going to take awhile.