Technology is Hard

(Published in The Express Tribune, August 16, 2010)

KARACHI: The graveyard of failed technology companies is littered with great ideas and poor execution. The ones that fail go away quietly but the ones that succeed, do so in a big way and more often than not there is a technologist at the helm.

Not only are the founders of these companies technologists, they all started out really young and share a passion for problem solving. It is interesting to understand why it takes a technologist to build the best of these tech companies.

Business continuity

Project managers and software developers are often pressed for time and pressured to deliver more and more features. The shrewd ones typically do deliver on time, collect their bonus and move on to another project.

They often leave behind an obfuscated mess that is extremely difficult for the next person to maintain. This practice is so commonplace that it has even earned its own name: ‘OPP’ or Other People’s Problem.

Software products often start out well but quickly hit a wall because of the lack of continuity planning. The business which had a seemingly good start ultimately becomes crippled and the original developers will have long moved on to other projects. The other side of business continuity planning involves having too little redundancy and when key engineers leave, the project falls into a state of disarray.

Scale and performance

Building an email platform isn’t all too hard but having it scale to millions of users can be a nightmare for even the most savvy of engineers. Google’s biggest data centres for example are so advanced that they have to hire top physicists just to solve problems of thermodynamics arising from the heat generated from these machines. The maintenance staff must wear protective ear muffs to insulate themselves from the whirring noise of the thousands of machines. They also use cycles to quickly get around the huge data centre building.

It is, in fact, because of their ability to scale that companies like Google and Microsoft are able to grow so fast.

The “scale and perf” mindset is deeply rooted in every software discipline and there is no business that can scale faster and bigger than the software. It is the reason the software industry produces the fastest millionaires.


The notable British science fiction author, Arthur C Clarke, puts it best: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Google’s entire business relies on people just entering text and clicking the ‘Search’ button, yet the company boasts the most number of PhDs on its payroll.

When it first launched, Google was fanatical about simplicity and featured nothing on its page but a search box.

Before Gmail, most webmail services showed a confirmation box to users each time a user wanted to delete mail. This was required so users don’t accidentally delete important email but soon became annoying when users would have to delete dozens of mails each day.

Gmail put a stop to this by just deleting the mail and instead showing an undo button after each delete.

The sort of thought that went into the design of such an interface requires not only analytical prowess but also a keen ability to be able to make it happen because building an undo feature is far more complicated than showing a simple confirmation box.

Usability often dictated whether or not people will use a feature which in turn impacts traffic volumes and consequently revenues.