Take a Step Back

In my time so far working in software development, as a developer and as a product manager, I’ve made and seen a lot of mistakes. I spent some time recently reflecting on some of the biggest mistakes, the ones that ultimately cost the most time or money, that caused the most frustration and heartache, and tried to devise some lessons learnt. In the end I realised that the vast majority of mistakes were actually variants of the same core mistake, and that one main lesson applied to all of them.

In this post I will discuss this mistake, some examples of where it comes up in software development, some thoughts on why it keeps happening, and some tips on how to avoid it.

The mistake

You’ve probably seen a diagram like this before.

Graph showing local and global optimum

Think about this diagram in the context of solving a software development problem. You might know that your current solution isn’t optimal and so you look around you for the best solution. Unfortunately what you find isn’t the best possible solution, and in these circumstances it can be very difficult to even see the global optimum, let alone achieve it. But this isn’t the mistake I want to highlight. It’s not always enough to simply find the optimal solution and move towards it. It might be prohibitively expensive to reach the optimal solution from where we are, and the mistake is in trying to do this.

The question isn’t “How do we get from here to the optimal solution?” The question is “Why did we start here in the first place?”

Problems exist in layers. So often, the reason we are where we are today at this layer of the problem is because of a decision we made yesterday at a higher layer of the problem. The solution isn’t to work out how to navigate at this layer from where we are to where we want to be, but to take a step back and change the incorrect decision at the higher layer.

Let’s look at this more concretely in the context of software development.

Layers of software development

The first layer of software development is the actual development, the programming. This is the land of implementation details, of off-by-one errors, of fragile legacy code. These are the problems that get in the way of what you really wanted to be doing. The problems you struggle to explain to your boss because they don’t understand your technical jargon. When deadlines approach, we get around these problems with ugly hacks that we promise we’ll fix later but that we never get to, and the pile of tech debt grows bigger and bigger. When all else fails, we take the easy way out and implement what one of my colleagues lovingly calls “developer features”.

The reason these problems are so hard to explain to our bosses is because nobody asked us to solve them. We made them up, they exist only in the minds of developers. In most cases, the specs don’t require us to solve these problems, and the solution isn’t to solve them but to work out how to avoid them entirely. This is commonly known as the XY problemwhen you face problem X, you come up with solution Y, you get stuck and you ask for help with Y instead of with X. It seems like a strange request but people offer some help, but nothing quite fits your problem. After much frustration and back-and-forth, they eventually discover that you really just need a better solution to X.

Whenever you get stuck with a problem that nobody asked you to solve, take a step back and check the requirements to see if this is really a problem that needs solving at all, or if a different approach might help you avoid the problem entirely.

Which leads in nicely to the next layer of software development: the requirements. This is the fuzzy grey area that sits between product owners and software developers. Typically when product owners think about people using their product, they imagine them being successful. They can paint a beautiful picture of how a feature will work when things go smoothly but they often gloss right over all those pesky details that developers need to implement a feature fully, when things go wrong or when users give unexpected input, and so the developers start making assumptions. This is the land of undefined behaviour, of unhelpful error messages and infinite loading screens, of inelegant failure modes.

But in an attempt to avoid under-specifying a feature, you can go too far in the other direction and over-specify it. Sometimes it’s not until you try something out that you know what will work best from a technical perspective but also what will feel right from a user’s perspective, and the developer is always the first person to try a feature. Getting requirements right makes a huge difference to the usability of your software—it can be the difference between making a product that’s intuitive and a delight to use, or making one that’s jarring and frustrating for your users. Of course, ideally you would be iterating on these requirements anyway, but this is the first and cheapest opportunity to do so.

When a requirement is starting to feel like more trouble than it’s worth, or you’re having to guess too much about how a feature should work, take a step back and consult with the product owner on what’s the best way to achieve the desired outcome for your users.

The next layer of software development is the product itself. This is the layer where the value of the product ultimately lies. The product owner should define a vision for the product, the types of people who will use it, the problems it will solve, and the features it will need to solve them. They will also need focus, to determine the problems it won’t solve and the features it won’t have, because trying to be all things to all people makes a product incoherent, hard to use and hard to understand. And it’s a lot more expensive to build and maintain too.

If you’re lucky, your users will have strong opinions about what features your product should have. Just remember that your users are also prone to XY problems, and rather than just building whatever they ask for, you should talk to them and try to discover their real problems. Some of the problems they describe will be valuable to solve with product features, some will be valuable but not well suited to your product and might make for a good separate product, some will be solveable with existing features in your product, and some will be low-value or one-off problems that aren’t worth building at all (although you can build a lot of good will by helping them solve these problems some other way).

Whenever you are unsure about what features to include and how they should work, take a step back and think about the problem you are trying to solve for your users and how this feature will help.

The next layer of software development is the go-to-market strategy. I wouldn’t be surprised if you groaned at the use of that phrase, because this is the first layer that starts to sound more business than fun which is exactly why it’s so commonly overlooked. This is the layer where your product actually starts to make a connection between your users and your wallet. If you are interested in getting your product in the hands of users, how do you describe it to them? What is the value proposition (ugh)—why should your users take time out of their busy lives to look at your product? What type of customer are you targeting? How valuable to them is a solution to the problem your product solves, and how much money do they have to spend on solving it? How are they solving this problem now, and how much money are they spending on it? Is it worth the same to all of your customers, or do you need a way to charge different amounts to different people? What else might they want from you besides the product itself, like training, consulting hours or support contracts?

These are all hugely important questions to answer, and not just something you should consider after you’ve built the product. Decisions at this layer will absolutely affect the requirements and priority of features. For example, if you are targeting only a small handful of large customers with a high-touch sales model, it might be cheaper to onboard your customers by hand rather than a building a fully-automated self-service registration page. If you need to describe your product in a particular way to get potential customers interested in it, you’d better make sure the features that support that description are prominent in the product, and that you don’t compromise on delivering them. If you’re trying to bring users over from one of your competitors, it might help to build a feature to help them import their existing data.

When you’re considering what features your product needs, as well as the advice above you should also take a step back and think about what you’re actually selling to your customers, how they will get their hands on your product, and what features they will need to start getting value from it. Even for internal or line-of-business applications, you still have users and you still need to “sell” to them if you want genuine adoption and a return on your investment.

The last layer (that I will consider in this post) is the business. We all like to say that we do what we do to make a difference, but we still have a business to run. Just like our product can’t be all things to all people, neither can our business. A good business should also have a vision and focus, and it’s important that your product aligns to this vision if it’s going to be successful. There’s so much more to running a successful product than just building it. A great product can still be a failure in the wrong business, because it will struggle to get the resources and support that it needs to thrive.

On the other hand, a product is just one way of achieving business needs. Some products exist soley for the purpose of generating demand for or increasing the retention of other products. If this is the case for your product, it’s important to be up-front and honest about this so that if circumstances change and you no longer have this need or you find a better way to satisfy it, you will know that it’s time to shift your focus to other things. It can be a tough call to make, but it’s far better than the alternative of soldiering on with a product that no longer serves a purpose for the business and watching it die a slow and painful death.

When you’re thinking of building a new product, and periodically as you continue building existing products, it’s important to take a step back and remind yourself of how the product aligns to the vision and needs of your business, and whether this product is the best way to satisfy those needs.

At every layer of software development, the biggest mistake that I see is not taking a step back.

Why does this mistake keep happening?

What causes these mistakes to reoccur so consistently, and across teams, companies, and industries? Here are some of the most common reasons that I see.

Too busy. When deadlines are tight, you don’t always have time to stop and think about what you’re doing, and whether your approach is the best way to solve the problem. Often we don’t schedule time in our week for reflecting on what we’re doing, and as deadlines get closer these are usually the first things in our calendar to get cut.

Too much free time. I know it seems like this contradicts my previous point, but Parkinson’s law says that work expands to fill the time available, so when we are given too much time to work on something we are prone to overengineering our solutions and building things we don’t need.

Following orders without questioning it. Just like lemmings cluelessly marching off a cliff without understanding what they’re doing, so too do we sometimes build what we’re told to build without questioning it. I’ve noticed that this is especially true for decisions that were made before we joined the project—we tend to assume that all decisions were made deliberately and for a good reason.

Not my job. Similarly to above, even when we do question a decision we are often content to say that the decision is not our job to make so it won’t be our fault if it’s a bad decision. And while this may be true, it’s far from a productive attitude. Customers don’t care who’s responsible for making decisions, they just want the best possible product.

The way we’ve always done it. This is a layer above these last two points. Not only do we continue down the wrong path after a decision rather than fixing the mistake, we continue to make the same kinds of decisions when they come up again in the future, making the same kinds of mistakes over and over without learning from the past.

The way industry leaders do it. Otherwise known as cargo culting. The thinking here is that “if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us”, but many of the problems faced by industry leaders only come up at a big enough scale, and the solutions designed to solve these problems introduce problems of their own. If we aren’t at that scale, we don’t face those problems and we don’t need those solutions.

No feedback loop. We can plan as well as we want, but without a feedback loop, when most things go off the rails they go off the rails hard. We like to think we have good intuition about what our users will want, we usually don’t. But even if we did, that wouldn’t mean that everything we build is done perfectly. Try navigating your house with your eyes closed and you’ll realise quickly enough that even things you do literally every day can be impossible without a good feedback loop.

Because it sounds like an interesting problem to solve. We all like to enjoy ourselves at work, and use exciting new tools. Sometimes we find problems or think of solutions that are so interesting we can’t help but try to solve them. This is also known as nerd sniping. We’ve all done this, and you can usually tell it’s a stupid idea but you get mesmerised by the cleverness of the solution.

Because we’re too proud to admit mistakes. Nobody likes to admit that they’re wrong, and not only to other people. If after a year of building something you realise you’ve been building the wrong thing, it can be incredibly hard to admit this to yourself. “Has this all been a complete waste of time?” It helps if you’re honest about this right from the start. Rather than setting yourself goals that depend on a sequence of unknowns turning out in your favour, make it your goal to understand the unknowns. If they go against you, you’ve still succeeded and you won’t feel the need to continue wasting time on it.

Why does this matter?

There are plenty of people out there who are content with focusing on their own job and ignoring these mistakes when they see them in the work of others. “I did my part well, and I’m proud of the work that I’ve done. It’s not my fault that the product failed/was a waste of time.” Personally, the way I see it is that it might not be my fault but it’s still my problem, because putting your heart and soul into something that doesn’t get used is painful. I don’t like building shelfware.

Whether or not it’s in my job description, I will always push to improve decision making at all layers of software development, to give the product the best possible chance of being successful. Not by knowing the right decisions to make, because I certainly don’t. But by encouraging everybody to take a step back and assess decisions in the full and correct context.

What can we do about it?

Unsurprisingly, agile software development has many techniques for dealing with these problems, but it’s very important that you understand how these techniques are supposed to help. Writing your product ideas down on index cards and making a backlog isn’t intrinsically helpful, nor is breaking delivery up into arbitrary two-week intervals and calling them sprints. Getting a customer to pay you money as soon as possible is only helpful if you actually solicit and consider feedback from them. You can easily do all of these things without actually being agile—a practice that is often referred to as “Agile in name only”.

To me, the important agile development techniques are those that force you to take a step back more often. Sprints are useful because at the start of a sprint you set a goal to be achieved in a fixed amount of time. Regardless of whether or not you achieve that goal, when the timebox runs out you take a step back and reflect on what you’re doing. Are we happy with our internal processes? Are there any improvements we can make as a development team? Is the product owner clear about the features and requirements? What do our customers think of what we’ve built? Have we validated our assumptions? Should we persist with these decisions or try something else? Have our priorities changed? Are we getting enough value from our efforts or is it time to move on entirely?

If you aren’t asking all these questions regularly you’re operating without a feedback loop and you’re probably already well off the rails. And if you haven’t scheduled time now to ask these questions, you’re only going to get busier and busier over time and get stuck in the “too busy to improve” loop we discussed earlier. It’s really important that you schedule time from the beginning for these reflective sessions and take a step back.