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Glue and scissors

I joined a new team at work a while back, and soon after I started a new project within that team. We’ve been working long enough now that I’ve noticed some trends in our design and decision making tools. Specifically, we’re reusing other projects and cutting features so much, I feel like I’m back in preschool doing arts and crafts with glue and scissors. They’re definitely the most popular tools in our metaphorical toolbox these days.

Let’s start with glue. Reuse has been a cornerstone of software engineering since, well, forever. Functions, classes, libraries, RPCs, web services, IaaS: they’re all variations on a theme. Morten Bagai’s Waza talk is a good recent take on this, but it’s definitely not the first, nor will it be the last.

We’re reusing a wide swathe of internal projects and infrastructure, as you’d expect, but that’s nothing special. The interesting part is that so far, our codebase is pretty much all glue. We’re not building any core functionality ourselves just yet; we’re not adding any intrinsically new value. We’ve just mashed together Bigtable, entity extraction, pubsub, and derived key cryptography, with Go as the connective tissue.

That’s not to say it’s trivial. We’ll eventually handle around 500Kqps, so we have our hands full just making and applying glue. Instead of Elmer’s, think industrial polymer adhesive and oxyacetylene torches. We do have some special sauce on the roadmap that we plan to build ourselves, but even that will stand on the shoulders of giants like our machine learning platform. When in doubt, mash things together, then see what sticks.

Scissors are the other figurative tool we’ve been wielding aggressively. Honestly, I still have no idea how we’re going to do a lot of what we need to do. We have a clear high level vision, and a few good example use cases, but big chunks of the middle are largely unknown.

As with reuse, this is nothing new. Entrepreneurs have ingrained iterative development and Lean Startup techniques to embrace change and uncertainty and still invent (or discover) products that people want. Cut everything that’s not absolutely necessary, build and ship an MVP, get users to use it, iterate on feedback. Rinse, lather, repeat.

I can talk the talk, but I’ve never really walked the walk on this scale before. I’ve tasted a few small bites of the startup experience, but not this one. Deploy early and often sounds good, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow when you have to cut almost everything to do it.

At the same time, those scissors are incredibly freeing. Instead of making endless design decisions, we adopt a “cut by default” mindset. We’ll circle back later, leaning on user feedback to prioritize what to build and then whether to keep or cut it permanently. That automatic scissor swipe frees up a ton of precious mental energy, which we can translate to productivity on stuff we know we need.

Who knew preschool arts and crafts applied to software engineering? I sure didn’t, but I’ve been enjoying the parallels. None of these ideas are new, of course, but it feels good to apply them in practice on a real world project, after paying them lip service for so long. Wish me luck!

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One thought on “Glue and scissors

  1. Interesting read and good luck on the big project moving forward!

    Having attended the Lean Startup SF workshop last year and developed web apps in Rails, the concepts of glue and scissors are very familiar.

    Regarding lean startup principles, the interesting part will be how they at much higher levels from the early brainstorming stage where they are normally applied.

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