by Leon Rosenshein

Like A Baby

Slept like a baby

Taking candy from a baby

Taking baby steps

What do those phrases mean to you? The generally accepted meaning is something like

Slept like a baby        -> Slept soundly and deeply

Taking candy from a baby -> Easy

Taking baby steps        -> small tentative steps

I’ve got 4 kids, and let me tell you, in my experience, reality doesn’t match that. Babies may fall asleep at random times, but they can fight it if there’s something interesting to them, and when they do fall asleep they’ve all got unique hair triggers that will wake them up and keep them from going back to sleep.

Have you ever tried to take something from a baby or toddler that wants what it has? It’s not easy. If they hold it it’s theirs. If they can see it, it’s theirs. If they once saw it and want it now, it’s theirs. When my oldest was a baby she got a hold of her hair and wanted to taste it. But it wasn’t long enough, so she pulled on it. It hurt so she grabbed tighter and pulled harder. You can see where this is going. We had to pry her tiny little fingers out of her hair to get her to calm down. Definitely not easy to take something they want.

Baby steps. When a baby goes from crawling to cruising he furniture to walking they do take small steps. But that’s because their legs are so short. They can’t take bigger steps. But I wouldn’t call them tentative. All walking is falling with style, catching yourself before it’s too late. But babies don’t know that they can catch themselves. They throw it all out there and hope. Eventually they figure out how to catch themselves. That’s not tentative. That’s confident and assertive.

By now you’re asking what this has to do with software development. First, easy things often aren’t. After all we’ve got compilers, so anything is possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or that it has no other impacts. Ownership and boundaries are real obstacles. And just like my daughter and her hair, we’re dealing with systems with inherent feedback loops, and sometimes those loops can make things worse. Putting a load balancer in front of multiple instances of a service makes things more scalable and resilient, until you hit some point and a slight delay in one instance causes the entire system to become unstable and fall over.

Second, doing things in small steps. Doing things in small steps makes sense. Do the smallest thing that you expect to add value. You don’t know if it will since you haven’t done it. But do it completely. Do the whole thing. If refactoring is needed, do it. If data migration is needed, do it. Take the step. Then catch yourself. Reevaluate and do it again.

That’s how software development is like talking about babies. What about slept like a baby you might be asking. That’s just there because it’s wrong, just like the other two, and I think lists should have at least three items, or they’re not lists.