I could build this during the weekend

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Geoff Graham on

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How many times have you heard that (or even uttered it under your own breath)? I know I’ve heard it in conversations. I also know I’ve wondered the same thing about a product or two — hey, the idea here is super simple, let’s get a couple buddies together and make the same thing, only better!

I like João’s take here. He reminds us that the core use case of an app or SaaS is often as easy as it sounds. But it’s the a lack of “second-order thinking” that prevents from understanding the complexities behind the scenes:

  • Was the team short-staffed and forced to make concessions?
  • Was the project managed in a waterfall, preventing some ideas from making it into the release?
  • Was there a time constraint that influenced the direction of the project?
  • Was the budget just not there to afford a specific feature?
  • Was there disharmony on the team?

There’s so much that we don’t see behind the product. João articulates this so clearly when he explains why a company like Uber needs hundreds of mobile app developers. They’re not there to support the initial use case; they’re charged with solving second-order factors and hopefully in a way that keeps complexity at a minimum while scaling with the rest of the system.

The world is messy. As software is more ubiquitous, we’re encoding this chaos in 1’s and 0’s. It’s more than that. Some scenarios are more difficult to encode in software than their pre-digital counterparts. A physical taxi queue at the airport is quite simple to understand. There’s no GPS technology involved, no geofencing. A person and a car can only be in one place at a time. In the digital world, things get messier.

I’m reminded of a post that Chris wrote up a while back where he harps on a seemingly simple Twitter feature request:

Why can’t I edit my tweets?! Twitter should allow that.

It’s the same deal. Features are complicated. Products are complicated. Yes, it would be awesome if this app had one particular feature or used some slick framework to speed things up — but there’s always context and second-order thinking to factor in before going straight into solution mode. Again, João says it much better than I’m able to:

It’s easy to oversimplify problems and try new, leaner technologies that optimize for our use cases. However, when scaling it to the rest of the organization, we start to see the dragons. People that didn’t build their software the right way. Entire tech stacks depending on libraries that teams can’t update due to reasons™. Quickly, we start realizing that our lean way of doing things may not serve most situations.

Speaking for myself at least, it’s tempting to jump straight into a solution or some conclusion. We’re problem solvers, right? That’s what we’re paid to do! But that’s where the dragons João describes come into view. There’s always more to the question (and the answer to it). Unless we slay those dragons, we risk making false assumptions and, ultimately, incorrect answers to seemingly simple things.

As always, front-end developers are aware. That includes being aware of second-order considerations.

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