Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Shortcuts and Spaghetti:

Now that the dot-com crash has exploded the myth of "Internet time," it's a good opportunity to look back on one of the most dangerous practices that arose during the bubble: taking shortcuts to "get big fast."

While it is true that the Internet has increased the velocity of business, far too many companies used it as an excuse to take shortcuts.

Shortcut #1: In the old economy, you built a brand over time, by delighting your customers. In the new economy, you built your brand by spending $100 million on television advertising, paying customers to use your product, and IPOing to increase your "buzz."

Shortcut #2: In the old economy, you built your company organically, by hiring good people. In the new economy, you built your company virtually, by hiring Scient, Viant, Sapient, or somebody else with a cool "ient" name, and by making offers to anyone with a pulse.

Shortcut #3: In the old economy, you learned about business by working for a successful company, and struck out on your own when you had accumulated experience. In the new economy, you dropped out of school/b-school/McKinsey and started your company right away, since your "paradigm-breaking" ideas rendered old-fashioned experience useless.

Unfortunately, while the idea of these shortcuts was appealing--who doesn't want to get rich quick?--they led their proponents off the proverbial cliff.

I advise you to pick up a copy of "The Mythical Man-Month," quite possibly the greatest book ever written about the software development process. In it, Fred Brooks describes how taking shortcuts in complex, interdependent endeavors like software development inevitably leads to a trail of tears.

Taking shortcuts in the development process leads to "spaghetti" code: disorganized, unreplicable, and unmaintainable. And when you've made that mistake, no amount of money or resources will correct it. One famous Brooks saying is that the surest way to delay a project is to add more people to it.

The shortcuts taken during the Internet boom led to "spaghetti" companies, and now we're all paying the price for the few lucky ones who got liquid and got out before the music stopped.

However, "The Mythical Man-Month" also offers us a recipe for success.

The key to success is discipline: planning carefully, executing systematically, and documenting thoroughly. In other words, doing things the old fashioned way.

So the next time you consider taking a shortcut, remember: becoming a spaghetti company is a good way to let your competitors eat you for lunch.

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