Should we be building software?

Originally published as Journey of a Tech Stack on Lux Group’s technical blog

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A painting of the Tower of Babel under construction

Should we be building software?

Software engineering is difficult and expensive: this is well understood and is reflected in the commoditisation of software into hugely scalable packages (usually cloud-based) that allow us to achieve our business goals without actually writing any code.

Just 10 years ago if you wanted an e-commerce site you had to hire a developer and purchase hardware to run and manage your site. Similarly if you wanted to launch a brochure site to promote your business or a blog to publish your thoughts or promote your business you hired a developer; soon enough you began to realise how expensive software development was. It’s never set and forget; standards change, fashions change, sites need ongoing maintenance, development and redesigns.

Nowadays if you want a blog you go to Tumblr or Medium, if you want an ecommerce site you go to Shopify, BigCommerce or Magento and if you want a brochure site you go to Squarespace or WordPress; most companies should avoid writing custom bespoke software unless really necessary.

So, who does need to hire developers (or software engineers as we prefer to be called these days)? The answer to this is companies or startups that are trying to solve a new problem — that is, one that hasn’t yet been fully commoditised — hire engineers, QAs, product owners, visual designers and user experience experts to create new software that fills a need or solves a problem for their users.

What is the better way to build software?

One of the most popular contemporary approaches to building software for startups is the Lean Startup method which involves building the smallest increment of business value possible and validating that within the market. This is a relatively modern approach that can be used in companies of all sizes but also happens to be the approach that small startups on restricted budgets often do by default and have done for many years before Eric Ries had even dreamed of the term “Lean Startup”.

Phase I: The budget startup

At its genesis, a company normally has serious budget constraints and takes the fastest route to building software and delivering value to its customers. Here, at Lux Group, this is exactly how our initial technology stack was built: using PHP (the swiss-army knife of development languages), outsourced engineers and rapid application development, delivering features as quickly as possible, validating them in the marketplace and then moving on to the next feature. Sales figures were the priority, performance and user experience followed closely behind with technical integrity and system design for an uncertain and ever-changing future well down the list.

In software engineering, Software Entropy increases over time and, unless significant time and resources are invested into maintenance, systems eventually become harder to understand and maintain. If a company is lucky enough to still be in business by this time they may reach Phase II.

Phase II: The strategic rebuild

The world is littered with the corpses of companies that never made it to Phase II. Many of these companies may have over-engineered their tech stack, over-complicating a solution to a problem they did not yet fully understand. Indeed many of the companies that have been purchased by the Lux Group such as Brands Exclusive, Living Social and Pinchme were far more ambitious with their technical solutions than the Lux Group engineers, and yet were unable to compete in the market while a simple, stripped-down, lean approach suited us, allowing us to develop quickly, absorb these companies and move on to the next challenge.

Twitter famously rebuilt its platform after discovering that the original Ruby on Rails implementation was unable to cope with their traffic and replaced it with a queue based system that served their purpose better. Facebook took a different approach, creating an extremely sophisticated low-level solution to improve the speed of their php code without requiring a full rewrite of their application logic.

A strategic rebuild normally comes when a company is in a strong position. To some dominant companies this market strength can arguably be a disadvantage — in the 9 years I worked in Westfield’s Digital Labs we pivoted to a different business strategy roughly every 2 years, often requiring a complete change in stack, programming language and personnel. In a less well-resourced company this wouldn’t have even been a possibility; Westfield Labs is still actively experimenting with Westfield’s role in the digital world.

rebuild is normally undertaken when the software is unable to provide the return on investment it has previously and the company knows that significant investment is required to return the software to a healthy state. When technical debt grows high enough, a system becomes technically bankrupt and unable to deliver the features growth necessary to implement the business strategy.

successful rebuild is normally undertaken under the following conditions:

  • The company has gained enough experience to understand its business domain, the customers it is serving and the product that it wants to offer.
  • The company is well-resourced, able to invest in more experienced engineers and to invest those engineers in building a product or platform for the future.
  • The company stakeholders understand that building a product with solid engineering principles, built-in checks and balances and a high-performing team to run this software takes more time and tends to cost more than doing Rapid Application Development (RAD) in the same way that building and maintaining an architect designed home tends to be far more expensive to build and maintain than buying a kit home and renovating it yourself.
  • The stakeholders understand that Software Engineering is Expensive and building things to last makes this even more expensive, therefore the company (and team) needs to be very selective around what features they opt to build.

If these principles are understood and adhered to, a strategic rebuild will be far more cost-effective over the long-term than a rapid application approach as the system will be designed to grow and change over time, hence allowing the company to grow and change with it, protecting the company and its customers from the shock and upset of prolonged downtime while the system is rebuilt again.

Continuous Delivery

So far we have talked about rapid application development on a budget and more strategic development at a higher cost. Recent developments in cloud computing, virtualisation and automation have led to companies being able to iterate rapidly, without compromising quality, security or stability.

How?

By breaking applications into smaller components, writing extensive tests and investing in automation, companies are able to release changes to production many times a day, while managing risk to the stability of the system.

Overheads

This approach comes at a cost: there is a significant overhead to writing tests for the features you deliver. However, not writing the tests means that you are not managing your risk and are unable to guarantee stability. The division of applications into smaller components means these components often make the path to retrieving data more convoluted which, in turn, makes development of these features slower.

High-performing team

How do you maintain your ROI given these increased overheads?

Having a more complex and sophisticated architecture means you require a more sophisticated team to run it. Features are expensive to build so we should not waste our time building features of unproven benefit: Pareto’s Principle states that 80% of the value comes from 20% of the features. Changes should be smaller and incremental, with each change forming an experiment upon your customers and your team having the ability to gauge the success of that test and pursue the most promising route — the simplest example of this are the A/B tests that many companies run.

The delivery team needs to have all the components necessary for delivery: planning, design, user experience, engineering, operations etc all working together.

Solve problems rather than build features

Most importantly the delivery team needs to become expert at solving problems and the stakeholders or management team need to be able to give the delivery team the autonomy to solve these problems rather than ask the team to deliver ‘features’.

So, should we be re-building software?

Joel Spolsky describes rewriting software from scratch as the worst thing you can ever do and I agree that in most scenarios, this indeed is the case. However, sometimes there are exceptions: here at Lux Group we have an opportunity to work on rebuilding a subset of features that simplifies and changes our business requirements and we believe we satisfy the criteria outlined above to enable a successful build that hugely improves our capacity to deliver value to the business.

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