FIVE REASONS BIG SOFTWARE REWRITES FAIL
Originally published at https://oprea.rocks/blog/five-reasons-big-software-rewrites-fail/
This article is part of a larger series where I plan on laying out the truth behind technology migration / decoupling projects. Having taken part in a couple of BIG REWRITE™️ and DECOUPLING™️ and SCALABILITY™️ projects in the past 3 years, I decided share what I think is the truth why many such projects fail. I hope this article and the other five I have in the pipeline will help people spot bad trends and do course correction early on. So without further ado, here are five reasons your big software rewrite will fail.
Hiring only after the house caught fire
Increasing capacity half-way through the project, hoping to get an immediate productivity boost is just as crazy as thinking that purchasing a fire insurance while the house is burning will help save the furniture already destroyed by the fire.
Remember that for every new member you add to the team, an existing member’s productivity is reduced by half, for as long as the on-boarding period takes. There’s also the Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing cycle the team goes through every time a new addition to the team is made. EVERY TIME!
Not involving the whole team
When only a small group — read: “the architects” — decides what tech stack to use, your project is headed for trouble. This is one of the reasons management ends up complaining that the team lacks commitment. Even the best tech stack was chosen, because envy and the desire for justice is deeply engrained in us, the team will reject it like the body refuses an incompatible organ after a transplant.
And It can only get worse. If the tech stack is decided upon by the business, based on buzzwords and rumours they heard while dining with their other business-friends who are better off, they should say hello to “it’s not my job” and “I told you that won’t work” and “X is way better” and “It’s John’s fault”.
If it’s a team effort, then it should be a team decision. PERIOD!
Lack of planning
Failing to plan is planning to fail
— Someone a lot more wiser than me
I see this behaviour usually with software developers who believe writing code is more of an art than a craft. But it’s not limited to developers. In 2018 there are still business people who believe that if they have an idea and they have developers, they can just tell developers what to do and they will do it.
You Don’t Understand!®
A software developer is not like a blacksmith. Blacksmiths too, face uncertainty in terms of the quality of the material they work with, the quality of the coal or the quality of their tools. But the level of uncertainty in software development is much higher than any other, production-oriented jobs. The software developer first has to figure out what he/she is implementing, then figure out a solution, then implement it. And they might have to go through this process multiple times, with a single piece of work.
Here’s a great analogy I found a while back, on Quora, that perfectly depicts the software development process — how to make a cup of tea
Not sticking to decisions
Failure to FOCUS (Follow One Course Until Successful)
— Robert Kiyosaki (I guess)
I remember reading about it in a book (can’t remember the title), about Henry Ford’s decision making principles. The gist is that decision making should not be delayed but once decisions are made, people should be slow in changing their mind about those decisions. Constantly changing your mind about decisions, will lead a team to build half-a-features and end up throwing away work. Make up your mind!
Build half a product, not a half-assed product.
Jason Fried, Rework
Sticking too long to poor decisions
This is a manifestation of the sunk cost fallacy. It’s the inability to let go of poor decisions just because “We already invested a lot of ___” — fill in the blanks — or “We’ve always done it this way”. This also highlights an even more dangerous behaviour, related to the fear of taking responsibility for those poor decisions and the insistence to continue on the wrong path.
This can, and will lead a team into a death-march.
Time for some cliche talk.
Remember: No matter how far you walked on the wrong road, turn back. Or to put it differently, even if you are on the right path, if you just stand there, eventually you’ll get run over.
Lack of capacity planning
Because there’s no do capacity planning, critical people end up being taken off their tasks to do some other, unplanned and unforeseen and most importantly UNRELATED work. If the organisation already has the headcount, please, be realistic about the number of people that are supposed to work on the project. If the plan is to migrate a full-blown production application, magic numbers don’t work. Just by picking a number — three, four or seven — won’t get you closer to your goal. At least not while respecting the roadmap milestones. Believe me, I know a lot about magic numbers. I studied philology in high school 😎.
Here’s a link to a paper on magic numbers in fairy tales, folklore and mythology I found on the web but never read.
The avoidance mentality
You avoid looking towards the obvious even when it’s trying to stare you back in the face. It’s walking around, eyes shut, acting like everything is fine even when there are only two weeks until the next deadline and the project is two months worth of work behind schedule. Take the bull by the horns early on. Software development should not feel like the Pamplona bull run. Stop running from the bull because it will ultimately catch up to you and pierce your behind.
Better yet, if you’re scared this and you can’t get over some of the fears associated with such a project, have your developers point out the flaws. We developers are pretty good at complaining at even the slightest sign of change. If you foster a culture of sharing, openness and courage, where people can speak up, no matter how “sensitive” the problem is or who is the person causing the problem, then you will have your developers screaming at the top of their lungs, tell you that the sky is falling.
Plans that stretch too far out
Planning one year worth of work when there are only two months worth of roadmap clarity.
This is just some fantasy world business insists we should live in. The year-long roadmap the team should stick to. Then they want us to be “agile”. In my opinion, a quarter is the longest stretch of time to be planned for. Trying to dump a whole year worth of work in a project management tool, and planning software like you plan the construction of a house, is just as crazy as trying to use a shovel manufacturing process to build aircrafts.
The only similarity between building a house and building software is in terminology, not in how the actual concepts are applied. In construction you don’t iterate over the architecture. If you do, you build a new house. And to build a new house, you have to tear the old one down. There’s no reuse, at least at the foundation level. Well, if the software is architected “well enough” you’re able to change the architecture without rebuilding the whole project.
Stop building monolithic, tangled, shitty, poorly-architected software just because “you need to deliver” and “you will refactor after you get investments”. This will eat you up with your shoes on! I mean it!
I’m not saying monoliths are bad. You can build a modular monolith that will work way better in the short term than any microservices based fluff you might find out there. But think before you build. And stop writing everything in Rails for heaven’s sake! There are other, less heavy frameworks out there. Unless you use Rails to serve your data through REST, I think it’s too old fashioned. It still insists on using jQuery and archaic front-end techniques and for the regular developer tuning a Rails app is a pain. I understand the benefits of sensible defaults and convention over configuration, that is what I admire about it, but please, decouple your front-end, stop building jQuery apps!
Measuring the wrong things
I’m not going to talk about specific measurements, because this has to be decide those for yourself. You should objectively evaluate your current situation and figure out what you want to measure, whether it’s velocity or time-to-market.
But let me give you a personal example of wrong measurements.
Let’s assume my goal is to increase my email subscriber list (which it is, so subscribe). It would be wrong for me to focus on the website visitor count. If I start watching that like a lunatic, month after month, I could either consider that I’m pretty popular and live like I already have more email subscribers — most fantasy-world story-point-adoring people live like this — until reality knocks me down. Or I could look at the visitors count, look at the subscribers list and notice there’s no improvement and become frustrated. Either way you put it, it’s bad and wrong.
The process is too rigid — or you think it is
From my experience this happens only because people tend to get too religious about the process when their only focus should be delivery. Many teams use SCRUM and complain that it is too rigid. In my opinion it is, but I’m biased. Objectively speaking, any agile-ish process is capable of adaptation and has a lot of flexibility built in. It is only our nature to apply everything by the book — especially when we are not the ones impacted by the process — that makes everything seem rigid.
You hire me to put out the fire and do software development instead of letting me help you with your technical strategy.
Big mistake! Although I love to do implementation work, and I somehow end up solving the hardest problems the client is facing, I’m not the most talented software developer. I know people who can put me to shame just by breathing in the same room. But one of my biggest assets is that I’m able to zoom-out quickly and spot trends and opportunities you can ride to success. And I never lose sight of the big picture. Now more than ever, you need to do big picture thinking on the technical side, as well. It’s not enough to have a great product vision and good software developers. You need a technical vision that’s just as quick to adapt to the world and the industry as your product vision is.
I know, there are more than five reasons rewrites fail. This post embodies the core nature of software development. You set up to solve one problem and you find three other problems you need to solve, along the way. Or as Vasco Duarte puts it, in his book, #NoEstimates“, building software is like when you try to unclog the pipes in your bathroom and end up having to build three more houses just to get the toilet working again.”
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