An old man yells at cloud

Illustration featuring a teenage programmer in the 90s with a European cityscape in the background

When I wrote my first line of JavaScript, it was 1998 and the Internet felt more exciting than now. That’s normal, I used to think. I was 17 back then. As we age, we tend to romanticise the past. I must be doing it, too.

But then I gave that feeling some more thought.

I’ve spent most of my career in startups and worked with younger engineers. Some of them as young as I was at the turn of the century.

I’ve observed the following difference developing over the years:

When my generation started coding, we were excited about tools that big companies didn’t use: Linux, Perl, PHP, MySQL, Postgres. We were far less excited about “enterprise” tools like Windows, VB, Oracle or even Java. We wanted a quick advantage over the incumbents. Something free, easy to learn and apply on the web. We admired the disruptors: Apple over IBM, Amazon over Walmart, Yahoo over Yellow Pages, Google over Yahoo.

But these disruptors have become the incumbents. And like the big companies of yore, they are using the tools that address the kinds of problems big companies have. What is different is young engineers are excited about these tools. Almost everything we use today was developed by one of the few giants referred to colloquially as “big tech”. From React and Kubernetes to GraphQL and microservices, even the smallest startups are using the same tools as the most valuable corporations in history.

Moreover, what young engineers seem to be most excited about today is a career in big tech. Even if the long-term goal is to start their own company, they see a stint at FAANG as an important step in that direction.

They aren’t wrong. Investors value this stamp of approval.

The AI wave seems to be exacerbating the trend. There is almost nothing one can do in this new and exciting space independent of big tech.

I’m romanticising the past, but the Internet that isn’t dominated by incumbents – from tools and careers to funding and research – is definitely gone. It is gone from our economy, our culture and our minds.

It’s the equivalent of young Jobs and Wozniak learning to code on a mainframe, hoping to land a job at IBM, so they can one day start an IBM-compatible Apple, using “big blue” tools and organisational patterns, hoping it will eventually be acquired by their former employer.