Core principles: your compass in the storm

by Seth Petry-Johnson 30. April 2013 04:33

Software development can be chaotic. We often need to make decisions based on missing data (or data we know is likely wrong), and it's difficult to ask outsiders for advice because the "right" answer is often context-dependent. In essence, successful software development depends on repeatedly selecting the least bad option from a set of imperfect solutions.

In practice, this means that developers cannot simply memorize solution patterns or "recipes". If I say "authentication" and you immediately think Forms Auth, then you're short-circuiting the selection process without evaluating the options. Same thing if I say "shorter feedback" and you immediately think "two week sprints". You can't make a good decision without evaluating your options, and just because you choose Solution A on a similar problem a month ago doesn't make it the appropriate solution to today's problem.

"Been there, done that" is not a decision making process! 

Making decisions is hard. The deeper you analyze a problem the more variables you identify, and the more variables you identify the harder it is to reason through the myriad ways they interact. It's so much easier to look at a problem, wait a few nanoseconds while the pattern matching functions of your subconscious mind do their magic, and then do the same thing that you did the last time you had a similar problem. After all, you tell yourself, it's the "pragmatic thing to do" because you don't have to "waste time" on analysis or research. "The devil you know", and all that.

Not so fast.

Pattern matching is a great heuristic for quickly identifying potential courses of action, but not for selecting the best one. Making the best possible decision requires greater attention to detail and greater appreciation of nuance. If you get the details wrong then it might seem like a good decision at a high level, but eventually you'll suffer death by a thousand papercuts. [Or you'll go broke under technical debt, etc. Insert your favorite metaphor here]

So how do we select from that set of imperfect solutions?

The key to making good decisions is to articulate your core values and principles, and then use them to derive a solution. Rather than memorizing specific solutions, memorize the steps you follow and the questions you ask to arrive at a solution.

For example, at Heuristic Solutions we have identified four core values that guide everything we do:

  • Understanding: we can't be successful unless we know what "success" looks like
  • Predictability: surprises are disruptive; we value procedures that minimize their impact
  • Productivity: success requires efficient operations
  • Quality: we value doing it right the first time; re-work is anathema to us

When making a decision, we frame it in context of these values to better see the trade-offs at play. For example, a low degree of Understanding means we can't be very Predictable, so we do more up-front analysis when predictability is crucial. When Productivity is necessary then we invest in Quality so that we can preserve velocity over time. 

This process forces us to consider those pesky (yet all-important) details specific to each situation. Sometimes this leads us to take radically different approaches to similar problems, but in each case we know we're maximizing for the things that truly matter to our success.

What are your core values?

What matters most to your organization? If you haven't already articulated your core values, take a minute to do so. Do you care about speed to market? What are you prepared (or not prepared) to sacrifice to get it? What does "quality" mean to you? How important are estimates to your planning process or stakeholders? Is it more important to maximize developer productivity, or team productivity?

When you're done, write them on your team board. Repeat them out loud each time you make a decision. Have discussions about which values are more important in each scenario, and then brainstorm ways to maximize those specific values. 

One parting word of advice: don't be afraid to follow your values, even if they contradict "best practices". While it's never a good idea to blindly ignore prevailing wisdom, realize that only YOU can fully appreciate the nuances of your specific situation. Core values are your compass, and by trusting them you allow yourself to select the best possible solution for this specific decision, ignoring "one size fits all" advice that might otherwise get in your way.

(Of course, if you frequently find yourself ignoring best practices then you might be thinking your situation is more unique than it really is. More on that in a later post!)

Bottom line: articulate what really matters to you, and then consciously and intentionally use those values every time you make a significant decision. You might be surprised at where this process takes you.

Seth Petry-Johnson

I'm a software architect and consultant for Heuristic Solutions.

I value clean code, malleable designs, short feedback cycles, usable interfaces and balance in all things.

I am a Pisces.

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