by Leon Rosenshein

Best Practices and Cargo Cults

A best practice is a “method or technique” that often produces superior results. A cargo cult, on the other hand, is slavishly following the forms of something that you’ve seen work (or at least think works). The problem is that from the outside, and often from the inside, they look awfully similar. The question is, how can you tell the difference?

Actually, the difference is pretty straightforward. What makes seeing the difference hard is that it’s not in what you’re doing. In both cases you’re probably doing the same thing. In fact, the closer you’re following the original the more likely it is you’re cargo culting, not following best practices.

The difference lies in why you’re doing the technique. Cargo culting is simple. You do the technique. It goes something like this.

You’ve seen <successful team/company> do a thing. You read an article they wrote about what they did and how great it worked out. You saw tweet something similar, about how it’s the new hotness, the new best practice. You can’t afford the consultant, but you like the reported results and decide to try it out. They have donuts every Tuesday morning and lattes on Thursday afternoon. They have a shared doc that they all use to write down what they’re working on and update it daily. You can do that, so you try it out. And unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work. Nothing changes.

Best practices are harder to implement. You start by looking at the technique. Then you look at the context it was used in. You look at the culture. You look at the environment. You look at the problems they were trying to solve. Things like team and company size. How long the they’ve been together. What the communication patterns were before they tried the technique. You think about it and understand how they technique, when applied in that specific context, solved the problems.

Then you look at your context. You look at the problems you’re trying to solve. You look at how it’s the same as the original. You look at how it’s different. Especially how it’s different, because as Tolstoy said in Anna Karenina,

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

That’s critical. Because you can’t just blindly apply someone else’s solution, from their context, and to their specific problems, to your context and your problems. You need to look not at what they did, but why they did it, and what you can learn from their experience. Then you apply it to your context and your problems.

Or put more simply, Google has more engineers building and running their build system than you have total employees, let alone developers. The build tools and systems that work for them won’t work for you. Instead of building your own version of blaze/borg, figure out what’s really slowing you down and fix that.