Deformation professionelle is a French phrase that encapsulates the perspective that your view of reality is shaped by your profession.

Deformation Professionelle Defined

Howard Rheingold in “Succinctly Spoken” from the Aug-27-1989 New York Times Magazine

Four people gaze at a steeple.

A minister sees a religious monument.
A mechanical engineer sees a balance of forces and materials.
A psychoanalyst sees a Freudian symbol.
The person who has to climb 70 steps to clean the belfry sees something  else.

The same object, but each observer has a different take, depending on his or her deformation professionelle.

Harrap’s New Standard French and English Dictionary defines deformation professionnelle as “‘professional idiosyncrasy; vocational bias.” But Harrap’s secondary definition–“‘distortion of map projection, photographic image'”–hints at the term’s broader meaning: a view of reality biased by one’s profession.

Jason Fried Exhibits  The Deformation Professionelle Of The Software Entrepreneur

It is More Complicated Than ThatI was reminded of this reading the opening paragraph to Jason Fried’s “How To Kill A Bad Idea

Are you in the software business? I bet most of you would answer no. So let me put it another way: Do you have a website? If the answer is yes, you’re in the software business. A website is software. It has utility, and that utility is accessed via an interface on a computer or mobile device. That’s software.

Jason is a software entrepreneur and sees everyone whose business relies on software in any fashion as a peer. The problem is that software is not only substituting for paper and furniture, but rooms and entire buildings. Think about how words like report, dashboard, desktop, workspace, and storefront all have meanings that encompass physical and virtual or on-line representations. As William Gibson has one of his characters observe in Spook Country,  “cyberspace is everting.” It’s interpenetrating our everyday reality to the point that on-line is our normal waking state.

In that context we have to reserve “software business” for a business that is meaningfully innovating in software.

Most businesses with a website–how many businesses are left that don’t have website–are no more in the software business than they are in the electricity business or the plumbing business or the furniture business, even though without these things they would not be able to operate.

If there is a burned out light in my restaurant or one of my faucets does not work or a chair is broken, my customer will hold me responsible. These are end user configuration problems or subcontractor management problems. I am in the restaurant business because I am trying to differentiate my business with good food, fast and friendly service, perhaps decor, and certainly location. I may hire a graphic artist to make my menus look distinctive, and print them fresh every day to reflect today’s specials, but this does not make me a publisher or printer.

Two decades ago Apple combined the personal computer with specialized software and a laser printer to create “desktop publishing.” This was a simplified form of publishing that allowed for substitution away from real printing presses.

I think the combination of advanced content management systems and richly configurable applications are removing the need for many entrepreneurs to get into the software business proper just to leverage the power and flexibility of software in their business. It’s spawning new categories of business like “SaaS-enabled services” and “multi-firm workflows that deliver expertise on demand.”

The implications for startups is that software has become a medium whose functionality has to be in service of meaningfully differentiated value.

Deformation Professionelle of the Software Marketing Professional

In “Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, and Practices” Peter Drucker offers the following definition of the basic functions of a business:

“Because the purpose of business is to create and keep a customer, the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.”

If you accept his logic, which I do, then to be in business is to be in the marketing and innovation business. Which indicates, I suspect, that my deformation professionelle is that of the marketing subtype of software entrepreneur, not the developer subtype.

Update Dec-9-2010: Great comment by Brad Pierce I want to highlight:

That Drucker quote may be misleading without a second Drucker quote,

“Marketing is not only much broader than selling, it is not a specialized activity at all It encompasses the entire business. It is the whole business seen from the point of view of the final result, that is, from the customer’s point of view. Concern and responsibility for marketing must therefore permeate all areas of the enterprise.”

It’s from Drucker’s “The Practice of Management

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Image Credit: From Edward Tufte‘s series of “Philosophical Diamond Signs” Using the format of diamond signs that provide alerts and warnings about the road ahead, this series of works on canvas shows philosophical alerts, imperatives, and thoughts about the path past and future.