Software companies love hiring people that like solving hard technical problems. On the surface this seems like a good idea, unfortunately it can lead to situations where you have people building a product where they focus more on the interesting technical challenges they can solve as opposed to whether their product is actually solving problems for their customers.

I started being reminded of this after reading an answer to a question on Quora about the difference between working at Google versus Facebook where Edmond Lau David Braginsky wrote

Google is like grad-school. People value working on hard problems, and doing them right. Things are pretty polished, the code is usually solid, and the systems are designed for scale from the very beginning. There are many experts around and review processes set up for systems designs.

Facebook is more like undergrad. Something needs to be done, and people do it. Most of the time they don't read the literature on the subject, or consult experts about the "right way" to do it, they just sit down, write the code, and make things work. Sometimes the way they do it is naive, and a lot of time it may cause bugs or break as it goes into production. And when that happens, they fix their problems, replace bottlenecks with scalable components, and (in most cases) move on to the next thing.

Google tends to value technology. Things are often done because they are technically hard or impressive. On most projects, the engineers make the calls.

Facebook values products and user experience, and designers tend to have a much larger impact. Zuck spends a lot of time looking at product mocks, and is involved pretty deeply with the site's look and feel.

It should be noted that Google deserves credit for succeeding where other large software have mostly failed in putting a bunch of throwing a bunch of Ph.Ds at a problem at actually having them create products that impacts hundreds of millions people as opposed to research papers that impress hundreds of their colleagues. That said, it is easy to see the impact of complexophiles (props to Addy Santo) in recent products like Google Wave.

If you go back and read the Google Wave announcement blog post it is interesting to note the focus on combining features from disparate use cases and the diversity of all of the technical challenges involved at once including

  • “Google Wave is just as well suited for quick messages as for persistent content — it allows for both collaboration and communication”
  • “It's an HTML 5 app, built on Google Web Toolkit. It includes a rich text editor and other functions like desktop drag-and-drop”
  • “The Google Wave protocol is the underlying format for storing and the means of sharing waves, and includes the ‘live’ concurrency control, which allows edits to be reflected instantly across users and services”
  • “The protocol is designed for open federation, such that anyone's Wave services can interoperate with each other and with the Google Wave service”
  • “Google Wave can also be considered a platform with a rich set of open APIs that allow developers to embed waves in other web services”

The product announcement read more like a technology showcase than an announcement for a product that is actually meant to help people communicate, collaborate or make their lives better in any way. This is an example of a product where smart people spent a lot of time working on hard problems but at the end of the day they didn't see the adoption they would have liked because they they spent more time focusing on technical challenges than ensuring they were building the right product.

It is interesting to think about all the internal discussions and time spent implementing features like character-by-character typing without anyone bothering to ask whether that feature actually makes sense for a product that is billed as a replacement to email. I often write emails where I write a snarky comment then edit it out when I reconsider the wisdom of sending that out to a broad audience. It’s not a feature that anyone wants for people to actually see that authoring process.

Some of you may remember that there was a time when I was literally the face of XML at Microsoft (i.e. going to took you to a page with my face on it Smile). In those days I spent a lot of time using phrases like the XML<-> objects impedance mismatch to describe the fact that the dominate type system for the dominant protocol for web services at the time (aka SOAP) actually had lots of constructs that you don’t map well to a traditional object oriented programming language like C# or Java. This was caused by the fact that XML had grown to serve conflicting masters. There were people who used it as a basis for document formats such as DocBook and XHTML. Then there were the people who saw it as a replacement to for the binary protocols used in interoperable remote procedure call technologies such as CORBA and Java RMI. The W3C decided to solve this problem by getting a bunch of really smart people in a room and asking them to create some amalgam type system that would solve both sets of completely different requirements. The output of this activity was XML Schema which became the type system for SOAP, WSDL and the WS-* family of technologies. This meant that people who simply wanted a way to define how to serialize a C# object in a way that it could be consumed by a Java method call ended up with a type system that was also meant to be able to describe the structural rules of the HTML in this blog post.

Thousands of man years of effort was spent across companies like Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Microsoft, IBM and BEA to develop toolkits on top of a protocol stack that had this fundamental technical challenge baked into it. Of course, everyone had a different way of trying to address this “XML<->object impedance mismatch which led to interoperability issues in what was meant to be a protocol stack that guaranteed interoperability. Eventually customers started telling their horror stories in actually using these technologies to interoperate such as Nelson Minar’s ETech 2005 Talk - Building a New Web Service at Google and movement around the usage of building web services using Representational State Transfer (REST) was born. In tandem, web developers realized that if your problem is moving programming language objects around, then perhaps a data format that was designed for that is the preferred choice. Today, it is hard to find any recently broadly deployed web service that doesn’t utilize on Javascript Object Notation (JSON) as opposed to SOAP.

The moral of both of these stories is that a lot of the time in software it is easy to get lost in the weeds solving hard technical problems that are due to complexity we’ve imposed on ourselves due to some well meaning design decision instead of actually solving customer problems. The trick is being able to detect when you’re in that situation and seeing if altering some of your base assumptions doesn’t lead to a lot of simplification of your problem space then frees you up to actually spend time solving real customer problems and delighting your users. More people need to ask themselves questions like do I really need to use the same type system and data format for business documents AND serialized objects from programming languages?

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