Technology Culture: The Sinking Car Syndrome

This is (hopefully) a short blog that will give you back a small piece of your life…

In technology, we rightly spend hours pouring over failure in order that we might understand it and therefore fix it and avoid it in the future. This seems a reasonable approach, learn from your mistakes, understand failure, plan your remediation etc etc. But is it possible that there are some instances where doing this is inappropriate? To answer this simple question, let me give you an analogy…

You decide that you want to travel from London to New York. Sounds reasonable so far…. But you decide you want to go by car! The reasoning for this is as follows:

  1. Cars are “tried and tested”.
  2. We have an existing deal with multiple car suppliers and we get great discounts.
  3. The key decision maker is a car enthusiast.
  4. The incumbent team understand cars and can support this choice.
  5. Cars are what we have available right now and we want to start execution tomorrow, so lets just make it work.

You first try a small hatchback and only manage to get around 3m off the coast of Scotland. Next up you figure you will get a more durable car, so you get a truck – but sadly this only makes 2m headway from the beach. You report back to the team and they send you a brand new Porsche and this time you give yourself an even bigger run up at the sea and you manage to make a whopping 4m, before the car sinks. The team now analyse all the data to figure out why each car sunk and what they can do to make this better. The team continue to experiment with various cars and progress is observed over time. After 6 months the team has managed to travel 12m towards their goal of driving to New York. The main reason for the progress is that the sunken cars are starting to form a land bridge. The leadership has now spent over 200m USD on this venture and don’t feel they can pivot, so they start to brainstorm how to make this work.

Maybe wind the windows up a little tighter, maybe the cars need more underseal, maybe over inflate the tyres or maybe we simply need way more cars? All of these may or may not make a difference. But here’s the challenge: you made a bad engineering choice and anything you do will just be a variant of bad. It will never be good and you cannot win with your choice.

The above obviously sounds a bit daft (and it is), but the point is that I am often called in after downtime to review an architecture to find a route cause and suggest remediation. But what is not always understood is that bad technology choices can be as likely to succeed as driving from London to New York. Sometimes you simply need to look at alternatives, you need a boat or a plane. The product architecture can be terminal, it wont ever be what you want it to be and no amount of analysis or spend will change this. The trick is to accept the brutal reality of your situation and move your focus towards choosing the technology that you need to transition to. Next try and figure out how quickly can you can do this pivot…

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