Staying the Course 🔧

Perhaps the problem with the digital software we use (particularly of the software-as-a-service variety) is that there is no incentive to build things that continue to work well for long periods of time.

(Charles Deluvio/Unsplash)

There’s a comment I spotted the other day on Hacker News that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I saw it. In a thread asking why Google’s messaging strategy has been so broken for so long, someone laid out this comment which makes my mind explode with what-ifs:

Having talked about similar questions with friends who work/worked at Google, you need to first ask "How do people get promoted at Google?" The answer to that (by launching new things that get abandoned soon after rather than improving/fixing existing things) answers your question and many others like it.

Some folks agreed with this stance. Some disagreed. But it is probably one of those things that I think regular users don’t really think a lot about—that quite often, these new products represent someone’s moonshot, their bid for higher pay and a little bit of extra notice.

But the less sexy jobs are ultimately the ones that benefit the most users. This was actually a topic of a recent Reply All episode, which discussed the reasons why bots had taken over the still-very-popular legacy game Team Fortress II. There, just as with Google, it is implied management decisions within Valve (an organization with a “flat” management structure) had discouraged people from continuing to work on the successful thing in favor of trying to get their hands on something new or more interesting. Doesn’t matter that one of the company’s most popular games is literally falling apart, they want to work on the Steam Deck!

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Product developers are often attracted to the new hotness at the cost of what is already working. (Riccardo Annandale/Unsplash)

It makes me wonder if a challenge that modern tech companies might face is that the air is too rarefied, and instead of coming up with genuinely useful things to make their existing offerings better, the result is more new widgets. New widgets are nice, they’re cool! But sometimes people just want to live with the old, comfortable thing that they enjoy … and pay for the right to continue to do so.

It might explain a lot why certain products get dropped. In the world of Linux, features sometimes get removed from the kernel because there’s no maintainer. One has to wonder if things like this might happen a lot more often than we think, where decisions of overstretched management are leading to product decisions that seem to do more harm than good.

One has to wonder if some of the biggest turkey features in recent tech history—the Touch Bar comes to mind—were the result of well-paid people getting bored of just doing the same thing well and hoping that creating something a little different would make the formula more interesting.

Just think of all the software-as-a-service products you’ve used over the years, and how, sometimes, they’ve devolved over time in the name of new features you don’t even use. That was someone’s job—and they were incentivized to design that new feature.

Saying yes to every new idea that comes to mind is a terrible business strategy, yet it can be one of the few ways to stand out in a competitive work environment. We don’t reward the people or the teams that prevent the fires from occurring, out of a need for innovation at all costs.

We live in a world where successful plumbers and auto mechanics get no rewards for their success in ensuring something doesn’t break for a long period of time. Maybe the question has changed in the technology industry and we need something like that? Just spitballing.

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Ernie Smith

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Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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