Why Develop Brittle (High-Risk) Apps?

September 25, 2009

“Brittle” design isn’t limited to enterprise application software. You can find brittle design in cars, bridges, buildings, TVs, or even the vegetable bin. (What are those 1/2-pint boxes of $5.00 raspberries, 3/4 of which are moldy, but examples of brittle design?)

What do brittle designs have in common? The designer chose to accentuate high performance at the expense of other reasonable design parameters, like cost, reliability, usability, etc. A Ferrari goes very, very fast, and it feels good when it goes fast, and that’s a design choice. And it’s part of the design choice that the car requires a technician or two to keep it going fast for longer than an afternoon.

So why are most enterprise applications brittle? You can see this coming a mile away. It was a design choice. The enterprise applications in question were designed to be the Ferraris of their particular class of application. They were designed to do the most, have the most functionality, be the most strategic, appeal to the most advanced early adopters, be the most highly differentiated, etc.

To get Ferrari-like performance, they had to make the same design choices Ferrari did. They had to assume the application was perfectly tuned every time the key was turned, and they had to assume that the technicians were there to perform the tuning.

Enterprise applications, you see, were intended to run on the best, the highest-end machines (for their class). They were intended to be set up by experts. They were intended to be maintained by people who had the resources to do what was necessary. They were intended to satisfy the demands of good early-adopter customers who put a lot of pressure on them, with complex pricing schemes or intricate accounting, even if later on, it made setting the thing up complex, increased the chance that there were bugs, and made later upgrades expensive.

This wasn’t bad design; it was good design, especially from the marketing point of view. The applications that put the most pressure on every other design parameter got the highest ratings, attracted the earliest early adopters, recruited the most capable (and highest-cost) implementers, etc., etc. So they won in the marketplace and beat out other applications in their class that made different design choices.

I lived through this when I worked at QAD. At QAD, the founder (Pam Lopker) made different design choices. She built a simple app, one that was pretty easy to understand and pretty easy to set up and did the basics. And for about two years, shortly after I got there, she had the leading application in the marketplace. And then SAP and JDE and PeopleSoft came in and cleaned our clock with applications that promised to do more.

Now, none of the people who actually bought SAP instead of QAD back then or chose (later) to try to replace QAD with SAP did this because they really wanted high performance, per se. They wanted “value” and “flexibility” and “return on investment” and “marketable skills.” They literally didn’t realize that the value and flexibility came at a cost, that the cost was that the application was brittle and that therefore, the value or flexibility or whatever was only achievable if you did everything right.

If they had realized this, would they have made different choices?

I don’t know. I remember a company that made kilns in Pittsburgh that had been using QAD for many years. The company had been taken over by a European company that used SAP, and the CIO had been sent over from Germany to replace the QAD system with the one that was (admittedly) more powerful. He called me in (years after I had worked at QAD) to help him justify the project.

I looked at it pretty carefully, and I shook my head. Admittedly, the QAD product didn’t do what he wanted. But I didn’t like the fit with SAP. I was worried that the product designed for German kiln production just wasn’t going to work. I didn’t want to be right, and I was disappointed to find out that two years later, despite very disciplined and careful efforts, he was back in Germany and QAD was still running the company.

I’m glossing over a lot, of course. There are secondary effects. Very often, the first user of an application dominates its development, so the app will be tuned to the users strengths and weaknesses. It will turn out to be brittle for other users because they don’t have the same strengths. Stuff that was easy for the first user then turns out to be hard for others.

Two final points need to be made. First, when a brittle application works, it’s GREAT. It can make a huge difference to the user. Brian Sommer frequently points out that the first users of an application adopt it for the strategic benefit, but later users don’t. He thinks it’s because the benefit gets commoditized. But I think it’s at least partially because the first users are often the best equipped to get the strategic benefit, whereas later users are not. I think you see something of the same issue, too, in many of Vinnie Mirchandani’s comments about the value that vendors deliver (or don’t deliver).

Second, as to the cause of failure. Michael Krigsman often correctly says that projects are a three-legged stool and that the vendors are often blamed for errors that could just as easily be blamed on the customers. Dennis Moore often voices similar thoughts. With brittle systems, of course, they’re quite right; the failure point can come anywhere. But when they say this, I think they may be overlooking how much the underlying design has contributed.

It may be the technician’s fault that he dropped the beaker of nitrogycerin. But whose brilliant idea was it to move nitroglycerin around in a beaker?


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