Experience (Still) Matters

In my 10+ years’ experience in software engineering, I have seen that for many times, seemingly good (or at least harmless) ideas, from architecture design to engineering process, caused severe problems after several years. Some of them repeated multiple times or happened in more than one group. So I learned that those are things to avoid.

For example, I learned that in service oriented architecture (or microservices, to use the latest buzz words), 1-to-1 relationship between services is a bad design. It usually doesn’t seem harmful in the v1 stage, but it always causes pain in the ass down the road. I shared this learning in Azure last year and it was also shared by Mark Russinovich in 2014 //BUILD conference (“Avoid Cloud Fail”, slice 16-18 in his deck): “Rule: make components capable of talking to multiple versions concurrently”; “Use registration with ‘return address’ pattern”; “Adheres to layering extension model where dependencies are one way”.

The challenge that I have is when I share my learning with people and advise them to do things differently, some of them don’t seem to be able to take the digested knowledge very well, especially when it’s against their intuition. Sometimes it would take quite a lot explanations to help them see why a seemingly good idea is actually a bad idea. It’s like playing the chess. In middlegame, a seemingly wise move may cause a devastating consequence in several steps later. An experienced player A can quickly foresee this and advise the less experienced player B not to make that move. Although B is a world champion poker player, due to having less experience in chess, he is not able to see the trap that far away. To explain it to B, A needs to show B step-by-step how will that move play out. In real life, some people in B’s position are lack of respect of A’s experience, doesn’t trust A’s digested knowledge and are not willing to listen to A’s explanation.

For the worse, under the name of being data driven, some of them feel they are doing the right to reject the digested knowledge because it’s not backed up by data. Of course it’s not. It’s not always practical to have as much data. As we move from one project to another, from one company to another, we lose the access to the detail information of the past projects. So it’s very common that we only have the conclusions (e.g. “1-to-1 relationship is a bad design”), and can briefly talk about what happened in the past at a high level, but couldn’t present any charts with a lot of numbers, any bug details, or side-by-side performance data comparison. A truly learning organization shouldn’t and wouldn’t let the pride of their data culture get in the way of learning from the others’ past experience.

Data driven is good (and popular these days), but experience still matters (a lot). As organizations have more metrics and push for data driven design and decision making, they should continue to respect and value experiences. Because experience (or digested knowledge) is the main way how we learn in our life. We were told by master investors that patience is important and buy-and-hold works. We were told that a rule of thumb in real estate is “location, location, location”. We were told that vaccines are safe and children should get vaccination. We don’t ask for data behind these. We know these wisdom came from decades of research, practice and experiments. It’s silly to ignore these only because “I haven’t seen the data”.

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