Build a thing to build the thing

When building new products, there’s always a weird tension between making something “real” and production-ready, and spending a bit of time just experimenting with all of the various ideas of what this “real” might look like.

This tension is less noticeable when we actually know what we want to build. If I am building a new Web rendering engine, I literally have all the specs – and a few well-established implementations for reference. However, when the actual product is a bit of an unknown, the tension starts to surge.

There are typically two forces that create this tension. First, therse’s the desire to ship expeditiously and engage the customers. This might come from the intention to maximize our chances to get it right, but also could just be a business necessity.

Then, there’s another force – the desire to deliver something that truly resonates with the customers. It’s bizarre how the underlying animating intention could be the same “let’s get it right”, but the approach is different: instead of jumping in as soon as possible, we try to first figure out what “right” looks like.

My intuition is that the two varying approaches come from different evaluations of the “chances budget”: how many chances does this particular idea have before we blew it? Folks who see a large chance budget will veer toward “let’s just ship something and iterate (or survive/get promoted, etc)”. Folks who see only a handful of chances in the budget will tend to “let’s first get our ducks in a row”.

Depending on the organization, there will be a pull toward one extreme or another: and sometimes a soup of both at the same time. There might be peeps jumping to ship whatever remotely looks like a feature and spend marketing dollars on boosting its visibility. There might also be people trying to carefully orchestrate large-scale “spherical cow” ecosystems that can only practically exist in a caffeine-induced slide deck. 

📐 The Principle

In my experience, the trick to resolve this tension is the practice I call “build a thing to build the thing”. It’s a pretty simple trick, please don’t get too excited. The hard part is mostly in knowing how to apply it.

When we decide to “build a thing to build the thing”, we agree to focus first on building something that is immediately adjacent to what we actually want to build. In the developer experience field, this adjacency most commonly looks like this: “Let’s build something useful with our product, and see what we learn from it”.

If we’re building a new library or framework, let’s build something that uses it – so that we learn how to improve our library or framework. Build a thing to build the thing.

“Earnest effort” is an important ingredient. If this is just some half-hearted dabbling to check the box, the trick will not work.

Close to a decade ago, when I was working on the Chrome Web Platform team, we wanted to get a better sense of whether or not the APIs and primitives we’re shipping are actually helping developers make better mobile Web applications.

So a few of us locked ourselves in a room and spent a few weeks actually trying to build a clone of a well-known mobile app as a Web app, powered by the latest and greatest bits that we were shipping or about to ship. Our hypothesis was a negative proof: if we – the people who actually build the platform bits – can’t do it, then nobody can.

We also adopted the “live as our customer” posture and used only the tools that were available outside of Google.

Every week, we wrote up a report of what we learned. Where the friction was, where the seemingly easy tasks turned into albatrosses. Where primitives and APIs that we thought were useful actually weren’t.

We failed gloriously. I remember showing the Web app to our VP and the first load taking hundreds of seconds on a reasonably crappy phone. We tried hard. We rummaged in all the bags of tricks. We profiled JS. We profiled C++. We messed with V8 and Chromium code trying to make it less slow. In one particularly unwise moment, I wrote code to construct DOM with C++. 
At the end of the adventure, we had an incontrovertible proof: if we wanted for mobile Web apps to be on par with their native equivalents, we had to do something different as a team.

This exercise served as a shift for how I and my colleagues thought about what’s important (and not important). It triggered a change in priorities for the larger organization.  I’ll spare the gory details of how it all went down. Suffice to say, a big chunk of the current narrative about Web performance was shaped by the insights we gained from our adventure.

Sometimes, building a thing to build the thing is clarifying like that. Sometimes, it just creates more questions. Whatever the outcome, there will be precious insights, waiting for us to be harvested.

💔 The hard part

The greatest challenge of adhering to the “build a thing to build the thing” principle is in our own ability to be honest with ourselves.

Here are some failure cases that I’ve seen. Use them as tripwires if you decide to apply this principle.

1️⃣ The DevRel trap. During the exercise, the people who are building on top of the product are different from those who are building the product.
For instance, a contractor or a DevRel team is building an app with the library that the engineering team built.  This insidious pattern is so widespread that it’s even considered a best practice. In my experience, it is anything but. It feels so obvious: of course DevRel folks are the best people to do this project!

However, most of the valuable insights will fall into the crack between the DevRel and the engineering team. Glorious failures will not trigger reevaluation of priorities, but rather shrugs and side glances at the DevRel team: “Well, maybe they’re not as good as we thought they were”.

2️⃣ Forgetting the thing. We get so engrossed in the exercise that we forget which thing we’re actually building. This most commonly happens when the main product is vague and ill-defined, and the adjacent thing feels a lot more concrete and graspable.

The chain of events that leads to this failure case usually looks like this:

  • Step 1: We want to build <foo>.
  • Step 2: <foo> is entirely ill-defined. We have no clue how to build it.
  • Step 3: We decide to start with <bar>, which is a thing that could be built with <foo>.
  • Step 4: A few weeks/months later… We’re building <bar>. Nobody remembers <foo>.

There is nothing wrong with a product pivot. Just make sure it’s done intentionally.

3️⃣ The confirmation demo. Like confirmation bias, confirmation demos only show the good parts of your products. These “things built to build things” aren’t made to challenge the assumptions or draw insights. They are carefully crafted potemkin villages whose entire purpose is to avoid novel insights to be drawn. These things will change no minds.

Don’t get me wrong. Demos are important. However, they are in an entirely different universe from applying the  “build a thing to build the thing” principle.

Anytime the ambiguity of the path forward is high, and it is not quite clear what we’re building, it might be worth having at least one “a thing to build the thing” exercise in progress, and that the insights from it are collected diligently to aid with navigating complexity.

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