Good, Fast or Cheap? Mu!

2008-11-15

When pursuing these three goals, which do you choose? Can you choose? How many? One? Two? Which one(s)? Surely not all three? I think mu.

The whole setup is off – it’s a misleading question. Speaking as a software engineer, Good is the center of gravity in this little triangle, and your only long-term yardstick. For argument’s sake, let’s assume something actually does end up Good, Fast and Cheap. That’s an actual big whoop, a real big deal – obviously, a lot of good work has been done. So you click your stop-watch, record the time it took and count up the money you spent on it. But: How do you assert how Good it really is? You don’t know yet, you have to keep track of that Goodness over time, from that point on. The world changes (it’s probably quite different already), so you will likely have to deal with additions and changes. This will reveal an important aspect of its Goodness: How easy it is to change, in terms of time and money. Also, hidden non-Goodness can pop up. Maybe someone cut a corner back in the Fast days to keep it Cheap? It happens, for more or less legitimate reasons. That will make it less Good later, or incur a little more time and cost to fix it, which makes it less Cheap and Fast overall. Things change, along with your scores for Fast and Cheap, even if they’re not on anyone’s MBO anymore. But are they really the factors you should be measuring in the first place?

Rant, rant. You can probably see where I’m going: I think measuring the Cheap can be misleading, because anything remotely worthwhile is also worth maintaining, and maintenance usually ends up being the biggest cost. The Goodness will deteriorate unless you put in that time doing the maintenance. Does this reduce your Fast score? Sure, but it’s like Oscar Wilde said: The only thing worse than maintaining is not doing maintenance. (Well, he would have, I’m sure.)

With any piece of software, it’s like this: When it’s Done – i.e. when noone is working on it anymore – it’s dead or dying. At that point, you can measure the time and money spent and say how Fast and Cheap it all was – which is useful for accounting and project management of course, but it’s not really relevant to the software, being dead – and well on its way to being replaced by a another project sometime later. Some things will take a long time find their shape, and will only end up as Good on paper, i.e. a measly one out of three. But some of those things really change the world, like the internet, the NASA space programs and the Manhattan project. (Yes, changing the world can be bad as well.) These projects require a whole new way of thinking to gel – slowly – in the heads of many brilliant people. You couldn’t have rushed setting up the internet by throwing more money at it. Most projects are obviously lesser efforts, but quality (here defined as being Good) generally does cost money, and it does take time.

Turning the tables completely on the whole question and flipping the polemics switch, we can phrase it like this: Unless it is actively burning time and money right now, it can’t be all that Good anymore, so forget about the whole thing being fast and cheap. Those are operational parameters that can be more sensibly applied to the day-to-day business of maintaining of the ever-important Goodness. Can we change this? Can we add that? If yes, and fast, you’re good. That’s a bit crudely put, but the polemics switch was on, after all.

If this little (but really simply syndicated) rant seems somehow familiar, it may be due to a high content of well-established, non-controversial truthism, but possibly also because you read my very similar Answer to a Question on LinkedIn.

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