by Leon Rosenshein

Green Fields And Platforms

I recently had the opportunity to work on a greenfield project. You know, the kind of project were you recognize a common problem a set of users have and you have an idea of how to solve the problem for them. It can be a great space to operate in. You have a green field to build your castle in. Sure, you’ve got the eternal constraints of time and resources, but other than that you’re free to innovate.

You get to choose your architecture. Need lots of extensibility governed by a common control? Maybe use a micro-kernel architecture. Have lots of different components that need to scale differently? Try microservices. You set the requirements and you decide on the architecture.

You get to examine the problem and solution space and figure out what the bounded contexts are. You pick the domains that drive the design. You pick the nouns (objects) and verbs (actions/API). You get to do it in a way that makes sense to you.

I was in that situation. We choose the language. We choose the architecture. We choose the domains. We built a proof of concept that showed us we were on the right path. Things were looking good.

Then we ran headlong into an observation Tolstoy made in Anna Karenina.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

We were trying to build a platform for others to build their solutions on. Like a good platform, one of the things we were doing was hiding complexity. We were trying to make it easier for our potential customers to focus on doing the things that added value and that their customers wanted. We wanted to make it so that they didn’t need to worry about the complexity and details of configuring and providing low latency connections between any two of a few hundred endpoints.

We spent some time talking to potential customers and it turns out that Tolstoy was right. At a high level all of our them were doing the same kinds of things. It was easy to see how a single platform could provide a foundation for all of them to build on and be happy. However, when we dug into the details of what they were unhappy about, it wasn’t as uniform.

Sure, they all ran into the same problems, and they all used most of the same tools to approach a solution. Unfortunately for us though, the solution to those common problems wasn’t the same across customers. And they weren’t different in the details and approach, they were also different in how those solutions integrated with the rest of their systems.

The domains had different shapes. The bounded contexts had similar names, but the boundaries were different. The set of verbs they used were generally synonyms of each other, but because the domains and contexts were different, they were incompatible. They were all unhappy with their bespoke solutions, but they were all unhappy in very specific, and different, ways.

Getting rid of that unhappiness still made sense as a solution, but the field wasn’t as green as we thought. Sure, we could have whatever architecture we wanted on the inside, but along the edges we found a whole new set of constraints. We had to (mostly) match existing code and APIs. Much more of a brownfield project than we originally thought.

As a platform we needed to make customers’ lives easier. And one of the big things we needed to do to make their lives easier was make sure the transition from their bespoke solutions to our framework was straightforward and painless. We realized that doing that had just become our biggest problem. In some ways it was a bigger problem than the original problem our platform was supposed to solve. Instead of just needing to hide the underlying complexity, we needed to hide the complexity of building a single API that could support the workflows and patterns of multiple different approaches to the problem.

To solve the problem, we kept reducing the scope of the initial version. Instead of a full-featured platform that could drop in, we focused on a very small subset of the problem space. Something we knew was important enough that all of our customers would want the change. Something we knew was separable enough that our customers could accept the change without having to do too much architectural surgery on their existing code. Something that would be the thin edge of the wedge and let us insert our platform in our customers’ codebase and then expand out from.

So next time someone tries to convince you that you’re going to be working on a greenfield project, remember that even the greenest of fields have edges, and the shape and context of those edges will turn what you think is a greenfield project into a brownfield project.

That doesn’t mean the idea is a bad one or that you should run away from it. On the contrary, it can be a great opportunity to learn a new domain, add lots of customer value, and have a chance to really stretch your design muscle. Just don’t forget the things on the edges, because that’s where the constraints and headaches come from.