The Fallacy of Now

A long time ago (for most of us), we built products over a long period of time, and hoped that customers liked what we built. It was important to give them all of the features they may need, as we wouldn’t be able to get them new features until the next release, which was usually at least a year away.

Today, we (most of us) try to understand what features our customers need and we try to please our customers. We’ve moved from we-make-it-you-take-it releases to we-listen-and-learn releases. We ship more often – most apps under development these days ship new features quarterly, monthly, or even more often.

The Joy of Features

One thing I’ve seen throughout my career is the excitement of getting a feature to customers. It’s a wonderful feeling to give a customer a feature they love. Maybe they’ll tweet about it; maybe they’l blog; maybe news of the feature will trend on reddit! For whatever the reason, getting features to customers is such an exciting task, that it sometimes can overshadow stability.

A decade or more ago, this mindset made sense. If the feature doesn’t “ship” now, it will be years before it’s available. But it’s just not as important today. If your product ships monthly, and you decide a feature isn’t ready for the monthly release, it’s a maximum of two months (assuming you canceled the feature on the first day) until the feature gets to customers at the end of the second month. Yes, two months is forever. And if you have a quarterly release, six months may seem like a million years. But my bet is that if you gamble and try and shove features in early, you’ll end up with a pile of half-finished features that don’t help customers at all. If you’re really, really lucky, you won’t lose too many of them.

The challenge is a mindset problem. People are motivated by progress, and seeing your feature move through the pipe is exciting. But if you have a predictable ship schedule, it’s like missing your train. If you miss your train (in any city with reasonable public transportation), you don’t cry and freak out, because you know another train is coming along soon. If you miss getting your feature into this month’s release, you know you’ll make the next release. It’s ok to miss your train.

When I worked on MS Teams, we shipped a new web front end every week. Every seven days. Still, every week someone requested that we hold the release for one more feature. If you wait one day, they said, we can make this really cool thing happen. Every week, I said, “nope – the really cool thing can happen as scheduled next week”.

Now

Whatever you’re doing, it doesn’t need to happen now. For 99.9% of the features you’re working on, your customers don’t need it now. They may ask for it, or you may tell them about it and excite them, but 99.9% of the time, they can wait. I know at least some of you are disagreeing, but I’m going to be a dick and just tell you that you’re wrong.

The point is, that I believe that customers (you remember that we make software to help people, right?) want to trust our software. Sure, they want new ways to solve their problems and new functionality that makes their experience awesome, but they want it to work. We certainly don’t need to make perfect software. However, we need to weigh whether the positive value of the new feature minus the distraction of unreliability or other flaws still results in a net positive for our customers.

It’s a challenge to get this balance right. It’s something I enjoy doing from my role (whether it’s QA, release management, tester, or whatever suits the situation). It’s hard, and it’s sticky, and it’s a big systems problem.

And that’s why I like it so much.

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