The Value of Ideas

An 2005 article by Derek Sivers, entitled “Ideas Are Just a Multiplier of Execution,” has been making its way through programming blogs lately. In regard to software design, I think the article is very accurate: ideas are worth very little and execution is enormously more important. The most profitable software in the world is not especially inventive: consider Microsoft Windows, websites like Myspace or Facebook, or applications like iTunes and Microsoft Word. These bits of software bring in enormous profits each year without, in my opinion, coming close to the sort of non-obviousness that forms the basis of most modern nations’ patent systems.

This is not to say that you cannot find remarkably clever ideas forming basis for some software. Bayesian spam filtering, Google’s PageRank algorithm, and, above all else, the original conception of public key cryptography are ideas of enormous value. The value of the software implementing these ideas is much less based on the implementation’s quality as software than upon the ideas themselves. These ideas are ground-breaking: cryptography has been important to humans for millenia, yet only in the past fifty years has anyone been brilliant enough to realize that some ideas from 17th century developments in number theory allow us to create secret codes whose means of encryption can be made public knowledge without disclosing the means of decryption.

And once we leave the world of software design, the value of ideas increases several fold. Consider some of the greatest ideas of the past two centuries: the marginal revolution in economics, Mendel’s allelic theory of genetics, or Einstein’s replacement of absolute space and absolute time with the absolute speed of light.

These ideas are gold in and of themselves. Once you have Einstein’s profoundly counter-intuitive notion in mind, it takes a much less brilliant physicist to do the work that develops the special theory of relativity. Many physicists are capable of performing the Kuhnean “normal science” that brings relativity to fruition; Einstein alone seems to have had the ability to see when one was required to question and rethink the most basic assumptions of his subject.

In light of these great achievements and the wealth and good fortune they have given all of us, I want to praise ideas for their own sake. While I agree that we should not soon cease to remind ourselves of the central importance of execution — bearing in mind Thomas Edison’s oft-quoted quip that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” — we should also remember that the value of ideas is non-trivial when the ideas themselves are non-trivial.