Newsletter 72 – Don't Over Engineer

It’s not a caution you here very often, but a worthy one now as ever.  Don’t Over Engineer solutions to your problems, features in your product, moving parts in your infrastructure, or solutions for your customers.

Five Levels of Settings

Years ago during the dot-com boom we were involved with a project for a financial services firm.  We were building out a subscription-based web service for them.  As part of the requirements gathering, we discussed various components and features that the site should have.  Their vision included various levels of settings and customizations that the user could control to filter and tune presentation.  It all appeared very rube goldbergian to us.

Our suggestion was to drastically reduce the initial settings, simplify the process, shorten development and then find out what real customers wanted.  In this case the client is always right, so we went ahead and built out the complex settings scheme.  Once the product rolled out, however customers indeed had much different usage patterns than either our development team or the client had even expected.  Their demands in turn drove a different direction, but one matching real-world requirements that only the customers ultimately understood.

Features But No Customers

A colleague of mine is in the process of building out software for a web service.  Currently they’ve built version one of the product as they envisioned.  They have no customers.  They’re in the process of reviewing the product and deciding on a second round of new features to add.  Let me repeat the earlier part – they have no customers.

I asked my colleague, why not launch with it as it is, and then see what your customers want.  Their response – we don’t want to launch until we’re ready.

Well chances are you’ll never be ready because you don’t know where you’re going.  You can’t really know where you’re going until your customers tell you.

Zero Percent Downtime

I’ve spoken with many managers and CEOs about infrastructure and architecture over the years.  I remember one instance where I was asking about expectations, and downtime.  The managers response – we want zero downtime.  Well that’s not necessarily practical in the real-world.  Well let’s put everything in place we can to get as close as we can to that.

The real world is messier.  Data centers have power outages.  In fact the east coast had over a day of power loss.  Averaged out that is one hour per year over the past thirty years.  Adding more components, more software to detect anomalies, more redundancy behind redundancy has it’s own commensurate costs.  At a certain point you have to err on the side of simplicity, as ultimately the complexity of the system itself contributes to outages and downtime.

Evolution of a Company

iPhone applications are everywhere these days.  A couple of years ago we were gathering feedback and opinion from experts and investors about a concept we had to build a venue and event management platform.  A colleague put us in touch with the CEO of a company building a iphone platform.  After discussing our concept he explained that they had started out with a very similar concept.  But over the past two years their company had evolved quite a bit from that starting point.  They simply responded to their customers requests for features, and grew organically from their.


It’s not easy to engineer a perfect widget from the start.  You usually don’t know what customers want, or how they will use your product or service.  Or further you don’t always know what the real world will deliver up.  So it is very easy to over engineer it, and miss the mark.  Better to build less, build small and release early.  Then let your customers or real-world dictates decide your next move.

Book Review – The Four Agreements – A Practical Guide To Personal Wisdom by Don Miguel Ruiz

This small little book is full of some very big ideas.

  1. Be Impeccable With Your Word.
  2. Don’t Take Anything Personally.
  3. Don’t Make Assumptions.
  4. Always Do Your Best.

Whether you find personal insights, or help in your business relationships, this book will surely give you some fresh perspectives.