Do Something Well, for Its Own Sake

When it comes to “What makes a good engineering culture”, among many other things, one thing should be on the list: the desire to do something well, for its own sake.

Not for delighting customers, not for showing off, not for making metrics look good, not for bonus and promotion, not for passing code review, not for meeting manager’s requirements, not for not looking bad. Just for its own sake.

Why? Because in software engineering, there are so many places and so many ways to cut corners without being easily noticed. We can save some time by not double confirming the numbers and facts which we use to back a decision, by closing a resolved bug without really seeing it passing in the exact condition as described in the bug report, by making a one-time mitigation in live site to just make the problem gone, without capturing the steps into a troubleshooting guide (not to mention to automate it).

Those behaviors can cause big hidden damages to the team:

  1. Bad money drives out good. People who cut corners like that will get more work done in the same period of time, compared to those who really do things well. Over the time, the latter are less reward and get promoted more slowly.
  2. Drags down the whole team’s productivity. Often times, if a person saves 10 minutes work (because he is tired in the evening, he doesn’t want to miss the shuttle bus, etc.), later, many other people in the team will have to spend extra minutes each and it adds up to be way more than 10 minutes. The team ends up losing hours of time to save 10 minutes.
  3. Makes it harder for the team to learn from its mistakes. The damages or cost of those corner-cutting may only start to emerge after a year or two. When the damage happens, it would be harder to connect back to what was done wrong in the first place.

The desire has to come from deep in people’s heart, from each individual’s own value system. The benefit of doing things right are either intangible, inquantifiable and unmeasurable (hence hard to be justified and rewarded), or will only be seen in long term. It takes some altruism. In the opposite, the benefit of cutting corners are tangible, measurable, immediate and self-benefiting, which goes well with the self-interested nature of human being.

How does it reconcile with “Perfect is the enemy of good”? I don’t think they are contradicting. They are balancing each other. “Perfect is the enemy of good” is about optimization and maximizing the overall return. It really bothers me to see people cutting corners and lowering the bar in the name of “perfect is the enemy of good”.

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