It’s the time of year for family gatherings, so here’s a repulsive group portrait of some nearly universal pathologies. Try not to read this while you’re eating.
We’ve all been hit with budgetecture. That’s when sound technology choices go out the window in favor of cost-cutting. The conversation goes something like this.
"Do we really need X?" asks the project sponsor. (A.k.a. the gold owner.)
For "X", you can substitute nearly anything that’s vitally necessary to make the system run: software licenses, redundant servers, offsite backups, or power supplies. It’s always asked with a sort of paternalistic tone, as though the grown-up has caught us blowing all our pocket money on comic books and bubble gum, whilst the serious adults are trying to get on with buying more buckets to carry their profits around in.
The correct way to answer this is "Yes. We do." That’s almost never the response.
After all, we’re trained as engineers, and engineering is all about making trade-offs. We know good and well that you don’t really need extravagances like power supplies, so long as there’s a sufficient supply of hamster wheels and cheap interns in the data center. So instead of simply saying, "Yes. We do," we go on with something like, "Well, you could do without a second server, provided you’re willing to accept downtime for routine maintenance and whenever a RAM chip gets hit by a cosmic ray and flips a bit, causing a crash, but if we get error-checking parity memory then we get around that, so we just have to worry about the operating system crashing, which it does about every three-point-nine days, so we’ll have to institute a regime of nightly restarts that the interns can do whenever they’re taking a break from the power-generating hamster wheels."
All of which might be completely true, but is utterly the wrong thing to say. The sponsor has surely stopped listening after the word, "Well…"
The problem is that you see your part as an engineering role, while your sponsor clearly understands he’s engaged in a negotiation. And in a negotiation, the last thing you want to do is make concessions on the first demand. In fact, the right response to the "do we really need" question is something like this:
"Without a second server, the whole system will come crashing down at least three times daily, particularly when it’s under heaviest load or when you are doing a demo for the Board of Directors. In fact, we really need four servers so we can take an HA pair down independently at any time while still maintaining 100% of our capacity, even in case one of the remaining pair crashes unexpectedly."
Of course, we both know you don’t really need the third and fourth servers. This is just a gambit to get the sponsor to change the subject to something else. You’re upping the ante and showing that you’re already running at the bare, dangerous, nearly-irresponsible minimum tolerable configuration. And besides, if you do actually get the extra servers, you can certainly use one to make your QA environment match production, and the other will make a great build box.
Schedule Quid Pro Quo
Another situation in which we harm ourselves by bringing engineering trade-offs to a negotiation comes when the schedule slips. Statistically speaking, we’re more likely to pick up the bass line from "La Bamba" from a pair of counter-rotating neutron stars than we are to complete a project on time. Sooner or later, you’ll realize that the only way to deliver your project on time and under budget is to reduce it to roughly the scope of "Hello, world!"
When that happens, being a responsible developer, you’ll tell your sponsor that the schedule needs to slip. You may not realize it, but by uttering those words, you’ve given the international sign of negotiating weakness.
Your sponsor, who has his or her own reputation—not to mention budget—tied to the delivery of this project, will reflexively respond with, "We can move the date, but if I give you that, then you have to give me these extra features."
The project is already going to be late. Adding features will surely make it more late, particularly since you’ve already established that the team isn’t moving as fast as expected. So why would someone invested in the success of the project want to further damage it by increasing the scope? It’s about as productive as soaking a grocery store bag (the paper kind) in water, then dropping a coconut into it.
I suspect that it’s sort of like dragging a piece of yarn in front of a kitten. It can’t help but pounce on it. It’s just what kittens do.
My only advice in this situation is to counter with data. Produce the burndown chart showing when you will actually be ready to release with the current scope. Then show how the fractally iterative cycle of slippage followed by scope creep produces a delivery date that will be moot, as the sun will have exploded before you reach beta.
The Fallacy of Capital
When something costs a lot, we want to use it all the time, regardless of how well suited it is or is not.
This is sort of the inverse of budgetecture. For example, relational databases used to cost roughly the same as a battleship. So, managers got it in their heads that everything needed to be in the relational database. Singular. As in, one.
Well, if one database server is the source of all truth, you’d better be pretty careful with it. And the best way to be careful with it is to make sure that nobody, but nobody, ever touches it. Then you collect a group of people with malleable young minds and a bent toward obsessive-compulsive abbreviation forming, and you make them the Curators of Truth.
But, because the damn thing cost so much, you need to get your money’s worth out of it. So, you mandate that every application must store its data in The Database, despite the fact that nobody knows where it is, what it looks like, or even if it really exists. Like Schrodinger’s cat, it might already be gone, it’s just that nobody has observed it yet. Still, even that genetic algorithm with simulated annealing, running ten million Monte Carlo fitness tests is required to keep its data in The Database.
(In the above argument, feel free to substitute IBM Mainframe, WebSphere, AquaLogic, ESB, or whatever your capital fallacy du jour may be.)
Of course, if databases didn’t cost so much, nobody would care how many of them there are. Which is why MySQL, Postgres, SQLite, and the others are really so useful. It’s not an issue to create twenty or thirty instances of a free database. There’s no need to collect them up into a grand "enterprise data architecture". In fact, exactly the opposite is true. You can finally let independent business units evolve independently. Independent services can own their own data stores, and never let other applications stick their fingers into its guts.
So there you have it, a small sample of the rogue’s gallery. These bad relations don’t get much photo op time with the CEO, but if you look, you’ll find them lurking in some cubicle just around the corner.