The Worst Decision Of My Career

By Gabriel PoçaOn September 25, 2020

The Worst Decision Of My Career

This is a reflection on software development and complexity. Let's start with some quotes to make me look smart:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system -- Gall's law

I only came across this quote recently, but I think that it summarizes what I've learned these past seven years. Another idea that I've found in a few books is that programming in isolation is problem-solving, but software engineering is all about managing complexity. This distinction between programming and software engineering makes sense to me, probably because of my mental models. I'm sure we can all disagree on this, but that's not the topic of today. Complexity is.

Complexity

Almost everyone I know in the software industry wants to build products that solve real and challenging problems. Change the world! The last thing you want is to build another CRUD application. They are fine, but it gets boring after a while.

Most of us will get bored without novelty. That's why the software industry has a recycling mechanism to keep things fresh and interesting for us: every once in a while a new, or different, language/framework will rise and light the path for a brighter future, overthrowing the existing standard, demanding that we learn it to be on top of the game.

We change our tools, but we keep building the same things over and over. I've been doing this long enough to see that we are just going in circles. Let's be honest, most of us aren't building life-changing products that wouldn't have been possible ten years ago, so let's not jump straight into another shiny technology that just came out and is going to solve all of our problems.

Solutions, solutions, solutions

For a while, the solution to every problem I encountered was a Rails app. -- this one is mine

Over the years, I've seen companies rewrite their products to change languages, frameworks, or architectures because they were told that the change would make their product better, run faster, and scale. By the way, you're only a true Ruby developer after you've heard the question "but does it scale?" at least one hundred times (kidding, but it'll happen).

Think about it, how many times were you sold a new programming language, technology, or a concept like microservices, serverless, event sourcing, clean architecture, micro frontends. There are many preachers in the software world.

At Subvisual, we started using Elixir a lot these past years, so I've learned a bit about the history of Erlang. If you don't know, Erlang uses the Actor Model, and the interesting part is that the designers of Erlang only learned about the Actor Model after having designed Erlang. This is important because the designers of Erlang didn't start with the intent of applying the Actor Model; it came as a solution to fault-tolerant distributed programming.

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail Abraham Maslow

The designers of Erlang picked the right tool for the job and most of us want to do the same. Unfortunately, there's usually more than one "tool" that would be "right," but to know which ones, you need to know what "job" you're solving. All of us should know this, but I keep learning about teams that fail to do it. There are so many companies, with a handful of experienced developers, that don't know what they are building, don't have a clear business yet, but their product is already built on complex architectures and technologies such as microservices, Kubernetes or event-sourcing.

Improving

Every project we start from scratch is an opportunity to do it right. We'll think to ourselves: This time I won't fall into the same traps! I have learned my lessons, I've studied the books, and I even met some of my gurus that wrote them! This time I'll follow "industry standards"!

I am the "architect"; I will design the perfect system! Without me, none of this will be possible. Those mindless programmers have no idea what they are doing. I, and only I, am the true heir of Martin Fowler!

This was a bit dramatic, but I needed a break from all of that whining. I know it's easy to fall into these traps. It's even easier when your company raised money, and everyone is expecting you to deliver the absolute best product ever because they are paying you for it! This is why your starting team is so important; they have to withstand the pressure. They must know that to build the grand vision, they have to go one step at a time.

The decision

I've made many bad decisions, and I've been fortunate enough to suffer the consequences of those decisions. A lot of developers don't get to experience consequences, so they never learn.

So what was the worst decision of my career? I don't know. But the title of this blog post is inspired by something an old colleague said. At the time, we were working for a product company that reached for event-driven architecture and event-sourcing too soon. They knew little about their market, and the choices the software team made were crippling their ability to change. Business rules were almost set in stone. Migrating data was a pain and the source of many bugs. And unfortunately, because the team didn't have experience with event-sourcing, the event store, which kept the state of all services, was also being used as an event-bus to communicate between services. Because of that, it was possible to couple one service to the internal state of another, which happened a lot. This almost invisible coupling made everything worse.

What did we do against such an unpredictable system? We took it apart: merging services that were too coupled; defining clear boundaries between services; moving some services away from the event-store into a traditional database; making some communication channels synchronous; writing integration and end-to-end tests.

When we were finished it was still an unnecessarily complex system, but it was one that we could change with some confidence. After that, we defined a long-term plan for the product's architecture and technology, but we didn't implement it. We waited for the right moment when something was starting to slow us down to make a small step in that direction. When the business goals changed, we changed our long-term plan, and once again made small steps in that direction when we felt the need for it.

Eventually, complexity found its way again into the codebase, but it was fine because the codebase was evolving slowing, adding and removing complexity when necessary.

Making the right call

Was that the worst decision of his career? I don't think so. The issue with him going for event-sourcing and event-driven architecture was that it wasn't the right moment, but my colleague didn't know that. He thought the goals for the next years were well defined, but unfortunately, they never are.

Should you use microservices or event-sourcing? Maybe, it depends on the context and the client. The decisions I make are the best that I can with the information that I have. For instance, when I'm part of the team that's starting a product, the technology we pick will depend on how we'll hire: if you want to build an office in Portugal, we have to make sure we have developers for that technology available. We have to think things through, and some things you only learn from experience. This applies to the systems we design as well. I've seen enough people design around what they believe the product will become in two years to know that those designs always fail to accommodate the changes that will come. So we design systems for small, incremental changes. Do the smallest thing that will get us started and doesn't compromise our ability to change once we know what the business needs.