Software Development: Big Is the One True Way

April 13, 2021

I read an essay called “Everyone Is Still Terrible At Creating Software At Scale.” I am often skeptical about categorical affirmatives. Sometimes a sweeping statement captures an essential truth. This essay in Marginally Interesting has illuminated software development in a useful way.

I found this passage thought provoking:

I’ve seen a few e-commerce companies from the inside, and while their systems are marvel of technologies able to handle thousands of transactions per second, it does not feel like this, but things like the app and the website are very deeply entangled with the rest. Even if you wanted, you couldn’t create a completely new app or website.

After I read this, I thought about rotational velocity. I also thought about the idea of how easy it is to break something. Users want a software component to work and be usable. Software often appears fluid. What’s clear is that outages at big vendors and security lapses are seemingly the stuff of daily headlines. Big outfits deliver one thing; users get another.

Here’s another statement I circled:

My recommendation is to look at structures and ask yourself, how hard is it for any one “unit” in your “system” to get stuff done. Everything that cuts across areas of responsibility adds complexity.

Complexity is an interesting idea. Does Google “change” how the Page Rank method is implemented, or is Google in the software wrapper business? Can Microsoft plug security gaps when those gaps are the fabric of core Azure and Windows 10 processes? Can Facebook actually change feedback loops which feed its content processes? Is it possible for an outfit like Honda to change how it makes automobiles? In theory, a Honda-type operation can change, but the enemies are time, Tesla-like disruptions, Covid, and money.

Like the big ship which managed to get stuck in the Suez Canal, altering a method once underway is tricky.

The essay ends with this observation:

Unless you take care everyone has different understanding of the problem, and there is no focus on information gathering and constructive creativity.

But big is the way, right?

Stephen E Arnold, April 14, 2021


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