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Don't Ask Me If It's Possible

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Years ago, ex-Googler Doug Edwards wrote a blog post to explain the meaning behind a few favorite words in the software developer’s vocabulary: orthogonal, cruft, canonical, and the big one - non-trivial.

It means impossible. Since no engineer is going to admit something is impossible, they use this word instead.

I’ve spent the bulk of my career developing commercial software, and it’s amazing how many sales people, executives, and marketing managers ask if something is possible. Example:

Is it possible to reverse the flow of time when we click this button?

The requests are more realistic, of course, but the stock reply is:

Given enough resources, anything is possible.

The response doesn’t say the feature is impossible, or even non-trivial. You might think the response is the habitual reply of yet another passive-aggressive software developer (the canonical developer, to use Mr. Edward’s lexicon), but I much prefer to think of the reply as a zen-like answer that points the questioner to the realities of software development. Despite what the pointy haired boss hears from tool vendors and analysts, creating software still requires resources – both time and mental effort.

What I’ve Learned

Building commercial software for a vertical market is a … non-trivial endeavor. But, not non-trivial in the impossible sense. The problem is you don’t know precisely what features will provide enough value to attract new customers until you’ve done some work.

I’ve generally found that if someone inside an ISV is asking if a feature is possible, it’s only a feature they want if it comes for free. They haven't done the homework to understand how the feature would work to provide value for the mainstream customer, and the idea is still in an incubation phase. It will be difficult to even estimate the amount of work required.

When they turn the question into:

What does it take to get this into our software?

Then you know they are serious and passionate about the idea, and it’s time to start talking.