earning the right

3 minute read

As technologists, we’re often captivated by the technical details of software. It’s not long before we want to understand database internals, the intricacies of our operating system or the best paradigms for writing software. We’re arbitrarily motivated to do deep dives into areas that are filled with high degrees of complexity or to spend hours figuring out how to optimise the performance of some software. We’re invested in the technology itself; it is the end, not a means to it. Over time, I’ve come to realise that while this inclination has been central to my growth as a software engineer, in the context of my professional career, it comes with a hefty downside — being caught up in the technology even when its not valuable to the customer. If you’re obsessed with implementation details, you need a high level of pragmatism to be and remain successful at work.

The central goal of any company is growth to generate profit. Well, at least that’s the goal of any reasonable company. Generating profit means we get to care about everything else because without profit there is no company. To generate profit, we need to create value.

Software, in the context of a for-profit company, is a means to an end and that end is creating value. There’s a saying, “It’s better to go slowly in the right direction than go speeding off in the wrong direction”. If you exert energy in the wrong direction, it doesn’t matter how great of a job you’ve done in creating something, its value to your customers is marginal. That’s the potential downside of obsessing over implementation details. All the time and energy that you put into producing the “perfect” code amounts to nothing if you’re going in the wrong direction. In and of itself, great code is not valuable. It doesn’t matter if its performant and scales to handling millions of queries per second or that is has 100% test coverage and a beautiful integration test suite or that its written in a purely functional programming language or that it has best-in-class observability. To care about writing software and software systems “the right way™️”, you have to earn the right.

To “earn the right” means to create a successful product. At that point, it is justifiable to care about the technical details1. If millions of customers are using your product each day, you start running into many fun problems: optimising the performance of your software systems, rearchitecting systems to handle increasing load and improve developer velocity and improving developer productivity. At this stage, the company, the team and you have earned the right to care about the details2.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that if you’re captivated by implementation details, you need a high level of pragmatism to be successful. The reason is summarised nicely in a quote we’ve all heard before, “premature optimisation is the root of all evil”. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in improving the performance of your code or how well it’s encapsulates behaviour or any of the other 1000 things we all want to care about before we’ve even proven its useful to our customers. At this point, it’s not subject to the type of constraints that necessitate the level of detail we all care about. And then, we have to ask ourselves, “is it really worth it?”. It’s fine shipping it if it gets the job done. When you have enough customers, your systems will let you know they need some love. You’ve earned the right to care.

  1. For the sake of nuance, this isn’t as applicable to infrastructure products (e.g databases) where the novelty of the solution is the selling point of the software. ↩︎

  2. Not all technical details are created equal. Even in the early stages, worrying about adequate test coverage, choosing good design patterns or how to write generally readable and maintainable code makes sense. Worrying about the scalability properties of your system, the performance of your software, the best way to structure your repos and code or the programming paradigm are mostly a distraction. You’ll undoubtedly run into challenges no matter which way you go, engineering is a bunch of trade-offs after all. And by the time you get to that point, you can just rewrite it anyway↩︎