The Never-Shipping Product

When you work as a professional programmer, you almost always know somebody (or are somebody) who’s going through one of the most common development horror stories in the book:

“We started working on this project five years ago, and the technology we were using/making was modern then, but it’s obsolete now. Things keep getting more and more complex with this obsolete technology, so it keeps getting less and less likely that we’ll ever finish the project. But if we re-write, we could be here for another five years!”

Another popular one is: “We can’t develop fast enough to keep up with modern user needs.” Or, “While we were developing, Google wrote a product better than ours much faster than us.”

When I hear things like that, the first thing I ask myself is “How did that happen? Why did it take so long for them to finish their product that they ran into that problem?”

The answer lies in complexity. The more complex a task is, the harder it is to complete it. So you start out with something simple that can be completed in one month. Then you add complexity, and the task will take three months. Then you take each piece of that and make it more complex, and the task will take nine months.

Complexity builds on complexity–it’s not just a linear thing. It’s not like, “We have ten features, and so adding one more will only add 10% more time.” No, one new feature will have to be coordinated with all ten of your existing features. So if just the feature itself takes 10 hours of coding time, there will be another hour of coding time for that feature interacting with each other feature. The more features there are, the higher the cost gets of adding a feature.

Some projects start out with such a complex set of requirements that they never get a first version out. If you’re in this situation, you should just trim features. Don’t shoot for the moon in your first release–get out something that works and make it work better over time.

There are other ways to add complexity than just adding features, too. The most common other ways are:

  • Expanding the purpose of the software. Generally, just don’t ever do that. Your marketing droids might be drooling over the idea of “making a single piece of software that does your taxes and cooks dinner”, but you should be screaming as loud as you can whenever any suggestion like that comes near your desk. Stick to your purpose–your software just has to do what it does well, and you will succeed, if that purpose is something people need.
  • Adding programmers. Yes, that’s right–adding more people to the team adds complexity, it does not make things simpler. Remember The Mythical Man Month? What he says in there is true because of the complexity equation I explained higher up in this article–if you have ten programmers, adding an eleventh means spending time to groove in that one programmer, plus the time to groove in the existing ten programmers to the new guy, plus the time spent by the new guy interacting with the existing ten programmers.
  • Change things: Any time you change something, you’re adding complexity. Whether it’s a requirement, a design, or just a piece of code, you’re introducing the possibility of bugs, the time required to implement the change, the time required to validate that the new change works with all the other pieces of the software, the time required to decide upon the change, and the time required to track the change, and the time required to test the change. Each change builds on the last in terms of all this complexity, so the more you change, the more and more time each new change is going to take. It’s still important to make certain changes, but you should be making informed decisions about it, not just changing everything on a whim.
  • Lock-In to bad technologies. This is where you make a bad decision about your backend or libraries and then are stuck with it for a long time because you’re so dependent on it. Obviously “bad technology” is very subjective, but sometimes there are obvious good choices and obvious bad ones. For example, if you need an embedded scripting language, Lua is generally considered to be a good choice, and “write our own” would probably be one of the worse choices, depending on the situation. It’s definitely relative–it’s not like there’s only one good choice and all the rest are bad, but some choices might make your life easier than others.
  • Poor design or no design. Basically, this just means “a failure to plan for change.” Things are going to change, and that requires design work, to maintain simplicity while the project grows. Failing to do this can introduce massive complexity very fast, because suddenly each new feature quadruples the complexity of the code instead of just adding a little bit to the complexity.
  • Re-inventing the wheel. For example, if you invent your own protocol when a perfectly good one exists, you’re going to be spending a lot of time working on the protocol, when you could just be working on your software. You should basically never have any huge invented-in-house dependency, like a webserver, a protocol, or a major library, unless that is your product.

The thing about all of these is that they’re insidious. Most of them only do long-term damage–something you won’t see for a year or more. So when somebody proposes them, often they sound harmless! And even when you start implementing them, maybe they seem fine. But as time goes on–and particularly as more and more of these stack up–the complexity becomes more apparent and grows and grows and grows, until you’re another victim of that ever-so-common horror story: “The Never-Shipping Product.” (Which is nowhere near as cool as The Neverending Story, believe me.)


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