Being Agile

Pete Hodgson's blurgh

Advice for the Founding Engineer, Part 2

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Engineering decisions made at the very early stages of a product’s life can have repercussions which extend far into the future. In this series of posts my advice on how to make the correct decisions as a founding engineer is condensed into three maxims. In the first post in this series I introduced the first maxim - “You’ll Never Know Less Than You Know Right Now”. In this post I’ll cover maxim 2 - “Optimize For Iteration”. In an upcoming post I’ll talk about the final maxim - “Boring Is Good”.

Maxim 2: Optimize for iteration

An early-stage startup needs to be able to experiment, learn and adjust. Over and over again. In this environment the most important property of your architecture and your engineering processes is how nimble they allow you to be. Note that nimble isn’t necessarily the same as efficient. Nimble means we have great visibility into how our product is being used and can adjust our product direction frequently without a lot of waste. Your startup is negotiating unclear terrain without much visibility into the future.

Your early architecture and processes should resemble a rally car that has a clear windscreen and is able to handle sudden turns and shifts in terrain. You do not want to provide a drag racer which goes really fast in one direction but can’t make any turns once the race has started.

Optimizing for iteration is a “scale-free” maxim. You can apply it at a very low level - for example setting up a fast automated test suite which provides feedback quickly as a developer make changes to code. You can also apply it at a very high level, rapidly validating your business model by launching an MVP and then iterating rather than spending a year slaving away on the first release of your product without getting any feedback on its fundamental value to your customer.

Work in small batches

Quick iteration means short cycle times. The cycle time of a feature is how long it takes that feature to go from ideation to production. It’s well understood that we achieve short cycle times by not batching up work into large chunks, even if it feels more efficient to do so. Instead, focus on moving small chunks of work quickly through to production. We get the most feedback from an idea once it’s in production, and feedback is vital as we navigate through uncertain terrain.

One example: rather than building out all 4 screens of your mobile app and then doing the initial push to the app store, just build the first screen and push it to the store. This reduces the time before you get feedback on what you’ve built so far. You don’t have to release that initial 1-screen app to the general public, but you might be surprised how many times the initial release of an app to the store uncovers an issue that is cheap to fix when you have one screen built, but 4 times more expensive if you have 4 screens built.Pushing something small all the way through to production gets us feedback faster and lets us course-correct sooner.

This philosophy doesn’t just apply to mobile apps. Getting a “hello world” version of your web app out into a production environment - and building out the initial delivery pipeline to get it there - allows you to start optimizing your delivery capability, which again allows you to optimize how quickly you can iterate on an idea and course-correct as necessary. Your goal should be to get comfortable as soon as possible with constantly releasing very small incremental changes into a production environment.

You need to measure in order to validate

Getting changes into customer’s hands is only the first half of iteration. You also need feedback on those changes. Spend time making your system observable. You need to understand how your system is behaving and how users are interacting with it in order to complete that feedback loop which drives iteration. You should be able to observe your system at various levels, from technical error logging (including client-side errors!), through user interaction analytics (for both web or mobile UIs), and on up to business-level metrics. An observable system provides the confidence to “move safely with speed”. You have the courage to make changes to your system when you know you’ll get rapid feedback on the impact of that change.

Stay tuned for more

This post covered my second maxim - “Optimize For Iteration”. Next up in the series I’ll talk about my final maxim - “Boring Is Good”. Follow me on twitter or subscribe to the blog feed to be updated as I publish the rest of the series.