Mission critical

Software for Hard Companies


Jack Northrop founded the Northrop Corporation in Hawthorne, California in 1939. The massive, rusty buildings alongside the Hawthorne Municipal Airport still bear traces of these origins: grand bay doors facing the runway, hangar-style buildings hugging the tarmac. Though aircraft have not been produced there for decades, Northrop field once occupied a preeminent spot in the budding aerospace industry. It was there that the P-61 Black Widow night fighter, the B-35 and YB-49 experimental flying wing bombers, the F-89 Scorpion interceptor, and the F-5 Freedom Fighter rolled off production lines ready for service in World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam.

Northrop Corporation F-5E Tiger II assembly line

Like so many great American factories, though, it was shuttered as production shifted elsewhere. As the world became flat and globalization led to rapid outsourcing and offshoring, the American industrial behemoths that had produced their way to victory in two World Wars and a Cold War - whose victory marked the so-called “end of history” - found cheap labor, welcoming governments, and absent regulations abroad. Successive administrations and the American public they governed were content to watch the industrial base get hollowed out in exchange for cheap consumer goods, and the assurance that American preeminence in the global world order were preordained.

Decades of CFO-led corporate strategy and financial engineering masked the loss of American dynamism with earnings and GDP growth. Innovations that revolutionized the economy - the internet and the smart phone - spawned generations of entrepreneurs to design the next killer app or the next essential CRM tool. These resulting ecosystems, based in Silicon Valley, birthed the most valuable corporations in the history of the world, sitting atop piles of cash too big to ever effectively allocate.

Software indeed ate the world, but for all the new behemoths it was software for software’s sake.

Software indeed ate the world, but for all the new behemoths it was software for software’s sake. The universality of front-end and back-end engineer job openings today bears testament to the fact that the only relevant hardware distinctions in this American software revolution are iOS vs Android and Mac vs PC. The American industrial base has been exchanged for an economy predicated on the next great widget that promises to harvest consumer data and more effectively tell consumers what to consume.

The world was never flat

While America's best minds have been A/B testing their way to the best shade of blue, China seized upon their period of strategic opportunity to become the world’s new industrial power. Now, in 2024, Chinese shipyards have accumulated over 200x as much production capacity as their American counterparts. The U.S. Navy, for so long the guarantor of global free trade and a rules-based international order, is outnumbered without seemingly any hope of catching up to Chinese production.

While the quality of American military weapons has been incomparable for much of the past century, China has eroded our lead with whole-of-state efforts to acquire, reverse engineer, or steal intellectual property, providing their potent industrial base with our previously exclusive technological edge. These warning signs have been apparent for well over a decade, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the United States government began to take active steps to combat the Chinese threat.

The insane groupthink in the Western foreign policy establishment that economic growth would lead to political liberalization and even the overthrow of the CCP was discarded, and we began to see China for what it really is – a new global power that rejects the American-led world order that it blames for its century of humiliation. Above all, China seeks to become both a regional and global hegemon with the ability to export its model of technological authoritarianism to the rest of the world.

While the American government woke from its wishful thinking-induced slumber, Silicon Valley and American technologists took much longer. In 2018, Google’s engineers staged an internal revolt against Project Maven. The project, which intended to use machine learning to better distinguish targets in drone videos, would have to do so without the minds of the leading Silicon Valley giant. These idealistic engineers became so accustomed to the peace dividend resulting from America’s victory in the Cold War, they couldn’t view the initiative as anything other than a malignant endeavor to target innocents.

Meanwhile, China was accelerating its Military-Civil fusion, requiring that its cutting edge technology be dual use. Chinese quadcopter drones from DJI were so globally pervasive that, when the US Department of Defense needed to ban them from use in 2018, there weren’t any ready American-made replacements. It took a hot war in Ukraine for Silicon Valley to realize that revisionist powers rejected the American-led world order and they would fight to upend it.

America needed to rediscover its dynamism. It needed to re-industrialize. It needed to lead.

Suddenly, it did not seem like such a good idea to be dependent on Russian gas and Chinese industry. As the same engineers who had earlier resisted cooperating with the Department of Defense updated their Twitter (now X) handles to include a Ukrainian flag, it became embarrassingly obvious the extent to which America had ceded its industrial lead to powers determined to see it overthrown; though Russia’s GDP was a fraction of the U.S. GDP, its production of standard artillery shells outpaced that of the U.S. and its NATO allies combined. As the meat-grinder continued, the minds of Silicon Valley finally took note: America needed to rediscover its dynamism. It needed to re-industrialize. It needed to lead.

While A16Z stood up its American Dynamism team, other VCs began to invest in the next great American hardware companies, and the Biden administration signed the CHIPS Act (and others) into law, hurdles remained. Who would be dynamic? Who would produce the silicon chips now so well funded by the government? Regardless of the money being thrown at the problem, the critical vulnerability remains: does America have enough engineers who are trained, ready, and willing to forego tweaking websites in order to invigorate the American industrial base?  

The future of American Dynamism

The American companies at the forefront of hard tech innovation for the past two decades were both founded by one man: Elon Musk. Tesla and SpaceX lead the world in their respective industries and they did it by focusing on the next generation of hardware development. When Tesla and SpaceX engineers couldn’t find the tools they needed, they built their own. They didn’t need CRM software or the next great web app; they needed application software that would enable them to develop, operate, and produce game-changing hardware.

The fundamental lesson that outsiders miss from the Tesla and SpaceX miracles is this: Elon’s companies became vertically integrated out of necessity.  They designed their own hardware, their own avionics, and their own application software because they couldn’t cheaply buy quality products off the shelf. As companies new and old chase American Dynamism - they’re doing it with the wrong lessons in mind. Founders are tweeting eccentrically and building everything in house because that’s what they saw Elon do.  Elon’s tweets didn’t cause his success. Vertically integration for its own sake isn’t the SpaceX way.

View of a Starlink satellite train from Earth

Focusing on the behaviors - and not the mindset that produced them - is leading to too many hot takes on X, too many teams “rolling their own” application software, and lackluster results. In the aerospace world where quality flight software engineers are the limiting factor, companies are asking them to divert their attention to building their internal tools. American dynamism can only be achieved by each company focusing on its comparative advantage, not frittering away its scarce talent redesigning the wheel.

The Sift Ethos

Sift was founded to catalyze American dynamism. Our founders studied best practice, which SpaceX developed over two decades, and decided to apply top engineering talent to replicate and extend the core capabilities that enabled SpaceX to land Falcon 9 rockets, operate a 5000+ satellite constellation, and fly America’s only human-rated space capsule.

Every hardware company across aerospace, transportation, energy, and more operates complex machines that produce high cardinality data. The tools to ingest, explore, and review this data, however, are tailored for “smart” thermostats, not cutting-edge spacecraft. As a result, our peers that left SpaceX to solve true engineering challenges are tasked with building their own observability stack.

The time for launching rockets, driving fleets of autonomous trains, or commercializing fusion energy should not be delayed by telemetry and data review software.


These are good engineers and the tools that they build work for their current use case, but those tools distract them from solving the big problems and, because they aren’t the main effort, they get put on a shelf as soon as they’re completed. When the company scales, the tools break and the process begins again. The time for launching rockets, driving fleets of autonomous trains, or commercializing fusion energy should not be delayed by telemetry and data review software. These are solved problems.  

Sift is more than just another SaaS company. Sift is not just SaaS for SaaS. Sift is built by engineers for engineers. We hired the best minds in the industry (see SpaceX, Google, Palantir, etc.) to make sure that the companies launching the next wave of American dynamism never need to worry about their telemetry again. With Sift, they can ingest all the data they need, visualize it without writing any code, and create rules to automatically review it.

Sift’s mission is to build software for hard(ware) companies.
Sift’s mission is to build software for hard(ware) companies.