The one cost engineers and product managers don’t consider

I love this article from Chris Gale, VP of Engineering at Yammer – The one cost engineers and product managers don’t consider – which is about reducing complexity…

On the product side, your best tool for eliminating complexity cost is data. Studies show that most product ideas fail to show value, and many even remove value. If you methodically test the impact of each change you make, you can discard those that are negative, but equally relevant to complexity cost, also discard those that are neutral. A change that doesn’t hurt the key performance indicators still hurts the product because it adds complexity debt that must be paid on all future projects. Often, the best thing for a product is taking something away from it. 

Beyond establishing the impact of changes, data also helps you to shed complexity over time. All of your features should be logging their usage, and this usage must be made transparent to everyone. Show your team where to find this data, and given them the means to ask how to interpret it if it’s unclear. At Yammer, where data is collected on most every feature and is made available to everyone, I’ve repeatedly seen this pattern: A developer is working in an area of the code and discovers that it will take more than a trivial amount of time to carry a feature forward in a refactor or other change. Instead of blindly taking on that work, he or she will run reports against the usage data to find out whether a given feature is often used. That data can then be run past the product managers who can help decide whether it’s sensible to just drop the feature. This can also save time before something even becomes a proposal, because product managers will start by asking how well-used is a feature area they intend to enhance. Many things that seemed like great ideas are revealed to be wastes of time, and complexity is saved. 

Complexity is also introduced by well-meaning people on the implementation side as well. Software developers like challenges, and the challenge of building a complex system that serves up a simple interface is especially alluring. Consider DSLs, abstractions and the attraction to being the one to build a framework that gets leveraged for years. This drives us to introduce huge complexity debt we defend with statements like “it makes it so easy once you understand” and “it will save us so much coding.” Writing the lines of code is rarely the big cost in engineering: it’s the understanding, the communication and the maintenance. 

Embrace simplicity in your engineering. The best engineering usually isn’t showy or intense-looking. Given the same result, the simpler code is more valuable to your organization. This will often be unsatisfying to people’s egos, but the best engineers have nothing to prove.

About brendansterne

Sr Director, Product Incubator
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