As we start to emerge from the pandemic, it’s tempting to daydream about all the ways our lives will go back to normal.
Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. Too many lives were lost. Too many businesses were disrupted or bankrupted. Too many aspects of the infrastructure that we take for granted every day, and which were already weak, have been fundamentally transformed or even destroyed by the impact of COVID-19.
What we need to focus on is rebuilding that infrastructure. I’m not talking about bridges, roads, and power plants (although we certainly need to focus on physical infrastructure too). I’m talking about the basic foundation of trust, communication, and interaction in our modern world.
I’m talking about code.
A year ago companies had to reconfigure overnight for a socially-distanced reality that requires connecting in new ways. OK, maybe it took three nights. But it was either that, or shutting down — quite possibly forever. Retailers, including big name-brand chains, got crushed if they weren’t prepared for a rapid transition to digital. In the midst of the crisis, businesses didn’t have the luxury of gradually plotting out and implementing a long-term strategy. They had to restructure their business-critical communications — immediately.
Retailers who thought they had years to fend off Amazon suddenly had hours to figure out how to become delivery-only. Bankruptcy filings for businesses with $50M or more in assets soared 194%. Schools who had dabbled with technology found themselves 100% online over a weekend, while 93% of U.S. households with children saw their kids taking classes online. Banks literally closed hundreds of branches forever.
Then something surprising happened. While many companies went into the crisis thinking these new digital channels might be “good enough to get us by during the pandemic,” many ended up saying, “Why weren’t we doing this before?”
These new digital communication channels work so well — and customers love them so much — that organizations plan to keep deploying more of them after the pandemic ends.
Delta Airlines, for example, saw customer satisfaction reached an all-time high during the pandemic—probably not what you’d expect. Delta relied on multiple digital channels such as text and email to inform passengers about rules and safety standards at every step of their trip. New channels meant a better experience, deeper engagement, and better customer service.
As a result of this deeper engagement—Twilio talked to 2,500 decision makers who said digital engagement was “critically or very important” to their survival last year—companies are only accelerating their digital investments. Twilio’s State of Customer Engagement report also showed that in 2020, the average digital transformation budget increased by 46% and 48% of companies say they intend to increase their digital investments in the coming year.
In other words: if you don’t keep ramping up, you’re going to be falling behind.
Building new models of interaction
This is a unique historical moment. We have the opportunity to put new models of communication and interaction in place —to rebuild—via code—a new infrastructure for business and even society. It’s a rare opportunity to reimagine how we work, and where. We shouldn’t be searching for a return to the old ways of doing things.
I am a software developer, which is a unique type of builder. To me, the blinking cursor represents raw potential—a computer asking, nay begging, to be used to make the world different and better in some small way today. The ability to make an impact is what draws many developers to computers in the first place. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning and keeps us up at all hours of the night. Answering that call. Fulfilling the potential.
One example of building via code: Community run website VaccinateCA saw an enormously complicated problem that required communicating accurate information (and combating misinformation), scheduling, and managing the data required to track these digital engagements. A challenge monumental enough it could have taken years to accomplish, it had VaccinateCA’s software developers—nimble coding fingers a’flying—building solutions in a week’s time.
Thanks to digital builders, we’re seeing retailers equip salespeople with the ability to serve online customers via text and video. Healthcare providers are using text and video to pre-screen patients before appointments and to follow up afterward. Banks are securely meeting with customers and providers online, leveraging chatbots, video and text.
These kinds of experiences can’t be bought off the shelf. They can only be built internally. Companies in every industry must become software builders rather than software buyers.
A new humanity
The past year hasn’t been easy by any stretch. The impact of COVID-19 will reverberate through every aspect of life for years to come.
But for business, this crisis has not been entirely negative. Traditionally slow organizations have transformed overnight, and their innovations will provide benefits long after this crisis subsides. The companies that made it through the crisis are building the next generation of digital infrastructure, where customer engagement is driven by digital communication channels.
From a technology perspective, nothing will ever go back to the old way of doing things. And that’s a good thing.
All of this requires developers — lots of them, and good ones. In Twilio’s survey, 93% of business leaders said that software developers were crucial to solving challenges during the pandemic. If you haven’t started hiring developers and creating a top-notch in-house software development organization, you should start now.
This is the opportunity for all of us to create new ways to connect and forge a new path forward, not only for our businesses and organizations, but with each other.
I can’t wait to see what we build.
Jeff Lawson is CEO and cofounder of Twilio, and author of Ask Your Developer