Sunday, October 13, 2013

Startup pivots - technology angle

This is what I've seen throughout my career as a typical [successful] startup lifecycle:

1. Build a product really fast - focus on experience, hopefully decent app code, basic persistence abstraction, monolithic database to keep things fast & simple.

2. If the product takes off, rapidly add features, variations for markets/segments, etc. Code grows more complex & tangled, resulting in greater brittleness and more bugs, database backend shows signs of strain.

3. Increase in number of users leads to business placing greater value on  availability and scalability, as well as performance, graceful degradation and similar matters.

Depending on the length of the the ramp up between stages 2 & 3, and the quality of tech design decisions at stage 1 despite pressure to get things out the door as fast as possible, techies at this point will be looking at a pile of technical debt sized somewhere between a molehill and a mountain.

What to do? Business still requires new features and capabilities to be added at the rapid clip. The more you build on the old without investing into refactoring or rewriting, the more the technical debt compounds (just like financial debt), increasing the tension between improving the internals vs the user-facing features.

Hopefully, as some money is now being made, reinvestment in improving technology platform is possible: break up the monolithic database (hopefully not too much logic is in the DB layer - stored procedures, etc.), try to break up increasingly tangled codebase, attempt to separate operations demanding synchronous, strong consistency guarantees from those that can be intermediated by async events. Words like SOA and EDA start to bounce around. If the business demands availability levels that require multiple datacenters, CAP theorem comes into play, eventual consistency strategies become critical, etc., etc.

In the meantime, some of the self-made components & modules may now have equivalent (or better) counterparts available as open-source or commercial software.

And it's at this point that investment in architecture, with focus on decomposition and encapsulation, as well as build/buy analysis unbiased by who wrote original in-house modules, becomes critical.

One often hears the term 'pivot' in startup parlance these days, usually referring to change in business model or product vision. I think the above illustrates that technology-wise, startups also have to execute one or more pivots to avoid being bound by the initial technical decisions that, just like business and product decisions, can rarely support the business forever.

Should we perhaps place greater emphasis on technology pivots? I think so.