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Thursday, March 15, 2012

One Feature in One Month or Ten in Six?

The best story I can tell to illustrate the difference between project planning and technical design at a big company vs a small startup happened today. I was talking to our head of analytics about a new project we are speccing out. This project will inevitably be the beachhead of a huge set of new features and systems that we'll want to write over the coming months. He sees this as an opportunity to start building something that will be able to accomplish all of those features in one multi-faceted system. And he's right, this is definitely a feature that we could easily implement in such a system.

However, it's also a feature that we can implement fairly cheaply using building blocks we already have. The cost difference in engineering this feature is pretty stark; my estimation is that to implement it in what we have takes roughly a month, most of which would be spent getting the presentation layer to look good. To implement it in the larger space would probably take closer to 6. If we implemented the larger system, we would get a lot more than just this feature. We would probably get 10 features out of it, and the ability to really start powering several different things.

I'm still going with the one month solution.

On the surface, this seems like a pretty foolish trade. I know that I'm probably going to build the bigger system sooner or later, I know that I would probably get more value for my time building it now, and not building it now means writing some code that will eventually be thrown away. If I were doing this at a big company, I would always choose to do the 6 month project. In fact, I would probably be busy thinking of all the other things we could do with another 6 months, and building up a plan and design that would emphasize the power and complexity of my solution. I'd be aiming for a system that people could use and grow for years to come.

But I don't work at a big company any more. There's no certainty that this larger feature set will actually move the needle on our business. We need to be able to see it in production and learn from the results before we commit resources to engineering a long-term solution. Priorities can change a lot in the span of a month, especially in a data-driven customer-facing business such as ours.

And ironically, I buy myself engineering time by going for the quick 1-month win. That bit about the majority of the time requiring front-end work is the trick. I can slap RESTful endpoints out to serve up and consume this data fairly quickly. While my front-end folks are busy making things pretty, we have the chance to catch our breath and evaluate, start laying groundwork, and eventually swap out the services without the front-end team ever having to know that things have changed. So while it seems like I'm doing one feature in one month, I'm really doing ten features in six and a half months. They may not be exactly the same ten features I would have if I started tomorrow, but that's half the point: By getting one feature out fast I give my business something concrete to evaluate, and I make it more likely that the ten features I eventually implement are the right ten for the job.

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