Monday, May 23, 2016

Generic Software Solutions Are Unicorns

How many times have you been working on a platform and recognized the need for some underlying technology that ties together several disparate components in your system. The conversation usually goes something like this.
We've been building component A for some time and we need to build component B and C. A's been doing well but has a lot of warts and tech debt that we'd like to fix. If we only had a generic system X then we could build B and C faster and reduce redundancy between A, B, and C
On the surface that reasoning seems sound. You're not dreaming up an ideal system and looking for problems it can solve. You have real world problems you're trying to solve for components A, B, and C. So what's wrong with setting out to build a generic system to solve your problems?

You aren't providing business value along the way

By building a new generic system instead of refactoring your existing system you're increasing you're opportunity loss costs. Every day that you spend building software that doesn't get into customers hands is a day of missed opportunity for feedback. You aren't able to get feedback on whether your solution actually fits the customer need. You aren't able to get feedback on what the unknowns in your system are that only come out in production. You aren't able to get feedback to validate the many assumptions you've had to make along the way. Building successful software requires a closed feedback loop between you and your customers. The longer you go without closing that loop the more risk you are adding that you're building the wrong thing.

Generic systems come with too many unknowns

A generic system needs to be able to solve problems it doesn't even know about. But often, these aren't problems that you have today or will likely have in the near future. Building your system in such a way that it can be delivered in small pieces that provide immediate business value allows you to make sure you're solving the correct problems today, and building a foundation that can be refactored and abstracted tomorrow to solve different problems that are unknown today.

It's easier to do the wrong thing than it is to do the right thing

When building a system for which you don't know the full requirements it's easier to do the wrong thing than it is the correct thing. That's because you're possibilities are almost infinite on what you could build, and at best you just have a educated guess as to what you will need to build in the future. This means that you're going to have to make assumptions that can't be validated. It's very possible that you make design decisions based on these assumptions that are difficult to go back and change. Building only the components you need today ensures that your system only needs to change for the problems you have, not the ones you think you're going to have.

Refactoring existing systems allows you to get the more generic solution that you need 

As you build the systems and components you need, you'll be able to start identifying the parts of your system that are needed across components. These common components are the real foundation of the more generic solution you need. Building them to solve your specific problems today means that they will only do what they need to do (i.e. you won't have spent time building features that aren't used). This will create a virtuous cycle of refactoring and adding more functionality as you need it. You'll get the correct level of abstraction for your components because you'll only be abstracting them when you have a real world need for the abstraction.

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