Lately at work, I’ve found myself being a particularly conservative and sometimes curmudgeonly voice in the room when it comes to technical decisions. There’s no particular authority bestowed upon me, but at times I’ll get asked to weigh in on technical decisions for the engineering org. When it comes to introducing new technology, my response usually takes the form of “Why now?”
Boredom creeps in at the edges of an engineering org, and there’s a steady drumbeat of new technology being introduced within a company our size. Implementing the same thing but slightly differently for the Nth time is sure to wear on an engineer’s patience. Refactoring that impossibly tangled piece of code to prepare it for a new life is not always enticing and is certainly never easy. It’s hard to read about cool new things on Hacker News and elsewhere, only to be disappointed that you can’t use it at work. I used to feel the same way, but grew out of it over time.
Perhaps it was working as a developer evangelist for a bit, where you see up close that many open source initiatives are actually marketing and recruitment activities in disguise. Not all OSS is rooted in altruism, curiosity, and community. Some companies just have a hard time hiring. For other libraries, your adoption of their software is the only thing that stands between life and death for that young startup who will sell you the enterprise support package, so please forgive them if they are a little light on the downsides and implementation costs.
Maybe I’m just jaded.
These overly-optimistic and selective voices poison engineering discourse. They make it more difficult to separate the technical problems from the domain problems. Compound this with teams changing rapidly, and it can be difficult to see which way is up.
I’ve been reaching more and more for this memo written in 1953 by H. G. Rickover. Rickover pioneered nuclear power for the United States Navy in the middle of the 20th century. This memo discusses making decisions when building nuclear reactors. It draws sharp distinction between the problems on paper and the problems that exist in the physical realm. I try to use this paper as a means of helping others see that Of course that new technology seems easy because we don’t know anything about it yet. Now more than ever must an engineer cut through marketing and hype to make sound decisions. Hopefully you can use it for the same purpose.
Anyway, here’s the memo: H. G. Rickover on the Problems of Nuclear Reactors.