Align on interop

A discussion of how to get an engineering project unstuck led to this insight. When examining sources of tension in engineering projects, there’s a common pattern that I see: the struggle to align on architecture. Fueled by the very reasonable desire to get things right, we may end up spending a bit of time trying to figure out how the code will be structured, which team will build what, etc. In one of my previous adventures at Google, I remember us project leads investing an entire day at a whiteboard trying to get all of this drawn out and settled. It felt good, but the durability of decisions made at that session ended up being pretty low: things shifted, requirements changed — and the previously drawn boxes no longer made sense. Argh — anyone up for another all-day session? I had this nagging feeling that there’s gotta be a more effective approach.

The idea was spurred by the plea of one of my colleagues: “just let the engineers write code.” So it dawned on us that maybe we’ve got the framing wrong. Maybe our struggle to align on architecture had a hidden subtext of “reduce duplication of effort.” Underneath our rugged appearance of experienced tech leads lurked the naive assumption that a well-architected project looks like people writing out their chunks of code once and then it all connects together and floats away into some code heaven. The end.
In reality, we all knew that this rarely–okay, never–happens. So maybe we needed to stop worrying about reducing duplicate work. Instead, let the engineers write code and align on interoperability. Find all the APIs where our code comes in contact with our customers and resolve to align on these APIs before shipping decisions are made. No matter how many implementations are in progress, they all need to have these same APIs. Then, make peace that team A will write roughly the same thing as team B — as long as there’s a plausible reason for that (such as resolving the pace layering tension), let them go at it. Who knows, maybe the icky hack that team B put together will end up carrying the day.

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