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Form and Function

I love reality TV about making stuff and solving problems. My family would say “to a fault.” Just a partial list of my favs:

I could easily spin a tangent about experiential archeology and the absolutely amazing Ruth Goldman, but I’ll be restrained about that (nope): Secrets of the Castle, Tudor Monastery Farm, Tales from the Green Valley, Edwardian Farm, Victorian Farm, Wartime Farm.

ANYWAY.

Recently I discovered that old Project Runway seasons are available on the Roku Channel, so I’ve been binging through them; just finished season fourteen (Ashley and Kelly FTW). At least once per year, the designers are asked to create a look for a large ready-to-wear retailer like JCPenney or JustFab or whatever. These are my favorites because it adds a super-interesting set of constraints to the challenge — is it unique while retaining mass appeal, can it be reproduced economically, will it read well in an online catalog, etc. etc.. This ends up being new for most of the participants, who think of themselves (legitimately) as “artists” and prefer to create fashion for fashion’s sake. Many of them have never created anything other than bespoke pieces and things often go hilariously off the rails as their work is judged against real world, economic criteria in addition to innovation and aesthetics. Especially because the judges themselves often aren’t able to express their own expectations clearly up front.

This vibe brings me back to software development in an enterprise setting (totally normal, right?). So many developers struggle to understand the context in which their work is judged. After all, we learned computer science from teachers for whom computer science itself is the end goal. We read about the cool new technologies being developed by tech giants like Facebook and Google and Amazon. All of our friends seem to be building microservices in the cloud using serverless backends and nosql map/reduce data stores leveraging deep learning and … whatever. So what does it mean to build yet another integration between System A and System B? What, in the end, is the point?

It turns out to be pretty simple:

  1. Does your software enable and accelerate business goals right now, and
  2. Does it require minimal investment to do the same in the future?

Amusingly, positive answers to both of these turn out to be pretty much 100% correlated not with “the shiniest new language” or “what Facebook is doing” but instead beautiful and elegant code. So that’s cool; just like a great dress created to sell online, successful enterprise code is exceptional both in form and function. Nice!

But as easy as these tests seem, they can be difficult to measure well. Enterprises are always awash in poorly-articulated requirements that all “need” to be ready yesterday. Becoming a slave to #1 can seem like the right thing — “we exist to serve the business” after all — but down that road lies darkness. You’ll write crappy code that doesn’t actually do what your users need anyways, breaks all the time and ultimately costs a ton in refactoring and lost credibility.

Alas, #2 alone doesn’t work either. You really have no idea what the future is going to look like, so you end up over-engineering into some super-generalized false utopian abstraction that surely costs more than it should to run and doesn’t do any one thing well. And it is true that if your business isn’t successful today it won’t exist tomorrow anyways.

It’s the combination that makes the magic. That push and pull of building something in the real world now, that can naturally evolve over time. That’s what great engineering is all about. And it primarily comes down to modularity. If you understand and independently execute the modules that make up your business, you can easily swap them in and out as needs change.

In fact, that’s why “microservices” get such play in the conversation these days — they are one way to help enforce separation of duties. But they’re just a tool, and you can create garbage in a microservice just as easily as you can in a monolith. And holy crap does that happen a lot. Technology is not the solution here … modular design can be implemented in any environment and any language.

Respect both form and function, knitting together a whole from independent pieces, and you are very likely to succeed. Just like the best designers on Project Runway. And the pottery show. And the baking one. And the knife-making one. And the …

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