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Jul 5th, 2019

Past versus Future: Fight!

In one of my talks I describe what we have come to call The Four Horsemen — four of the most common challenges incumbents encounter in their innovation/transformation/disruption journey. Horseman number two is “Leverage what you have”: The unfortunate tendency for established companies to make use of whatever resources they already have invested into, be it people, machines, tools or processes.

Startups don’t suffer from the Four Horsemen — no legacy, no problems. But when it comes to our second horseman, startups often face the exact opposite problem: Shiny-New-Object-Syndrome. The urge to use whatever is the latest and greatest (particularly when it comes to your tech stack).

I have seen this play out so many times, it is not funny anymore. SQL to NoSQL back to SQL again. Java/PHP to Ruby to Python to Javascript to Haskell to god-only-knows-what-is-hip-these-days. Framework A to B, and all the way to Z.

It is worth reading Dan McKinley’s essay/talk notes on “Choose Boring Technology” (Essay/Talk Notes). He is right. As a technologist, you are almost always better off using the tried and true.

And yet — it brings up the tension of two diametrically opposed fallacies: “Leverage What You Have” versus “Choose Boring Technology”. What is one to do? Throughout my career I found truth in (the totally non-accurate and made-up) Einstein quote: “If I only had one hour to solve a problem I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and the remaining 5 minutes solving it.“

The quote might be fabricated, the essence holds true though: Instead of jumping into building things and either using whatever the cool kids are using or whatever you have used forever before, spend time deliberately figuring out what works and doesn’t for the job at hand. It will pay off handsomely in the long-run.

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