Firefighting vs. Fire Prevention

One of my team members shared this article with me: Treat bugs as fires. The author said,

“There are software devs who follow a different approach. They focus on fire prevention, not fire cure. Sure, they have to put out fires. But they use each fire as an opportunity to learn how to prevent fires, and then they build new parts of the city in a way that prevents the fires they have seen. Over time, these teams live in cities that don’t burn down. They go weeks and months between alarms going off. They rarely even have building code violations (risks found by QA or build verification tools).”

There are very few number of such teams. It’s because balancing between firefighting vs. fire prevention is hard:

1. Firefighting is heroic and many managements reward such heroic behavior. If they don’t do so, there will be no fire fighters. The dilemma is: then, preventing fire is less rewarded than firefighting and it’s human nature to go after bigger rewards. So fewer people will do fire prevention and more people will do firefighting.

2. Few people stay in the same place long enough to start to harvest from their investments in fire prevention. To optimize for the outcome in 18 months, I would rather to cut a lot corners in order to ship a lot of shining features, get a promotion, and move on. The corner-cutting will hurt us after 2-3 years, but why would I care if I am not here anymore?

Both need to be address by the managements:

For (1), the managements have to first be conscious about how he/she is rewarding firefighting vs. fire prevention. Then find out a balanced way to encourage fire prevention while keep firefighters a desired job.

For (2), attrition is natural, but the managements can keep people stay a bit longer and can make ownership stable. It also depends on the management’s judgment. Management needs to point it out when people cut corner and punish people if it’s too much.

That’s why the management is so critical (especially the first line as well as middle management). If the management fails to steer the team toward the right balance between firefighting vs. fire prevention, or the management themselves only plan to be here for 18 months, the team/product has little chance to thrive.

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