Quality versus quantity

Qualitative decisions often lose out to quantitative decisions. Every one of us lives this every day, quite often without realizing that we are doing it.

I don’t remember where I heard the story about a truck driver named John Barstow. Nearly every day of his life he would drive down Main Street making his delivery to a local store. His goal was actually on 4th Street, which was a one way street and he needed to go about half a block in the wrong direction, so he would pass 4th and turn right on 5th Street, go around the block, and pull up in front of his destination.

One of these many deliveries days, something unexpected happened on the way to his drop off. As he approached 3rd Street, his delivery truck blew a tire. He had to pull over and, upon climbing out of his truck and inspecting the damaged tire, realized he needed to call a tow truck. Being close to his destination he decided to proceed the remaining block and call for help from the store where he made his deliveries. He continued on, passing the one-way 4th Street and turning right on 5th, as usual. He was halfway down the 5th Street, getting ready to turn right and circle back on to 4th, before he realized he could have taken 4th Street this time.

He was on foot.

The quantitative decision — the habit of going around the block to avoid a one way street — won out over a qualitative choice, that of taking a shorter route. We get used to set patterns and “business as usual.”

The technology industry is among a small set of disciplines that takes the consequence of making quantitative decisions to an extreme. Software and hardware are both progressing at a remarkable pace that is, if anything, accelerating. We see this every day as new technologies develop and old technologies evolve. The open source community is driving this effect to an even more frantic extreme, as hundreds of contributors pour their effort into a single product. It is, and always will be, impossible to totally keep up with the pace of change and the challenges of an evolving world.

It’s not enough to define our process or methodology and let it settle in. Yes, we absolutely need to have a clearly defined and adopted set of processes and procedures to ensure a good product. And, those processes and procedures need to become a part of our daily lives so that we don’t take shortcuts and miss important steps. But at the same time, it’s important to never let it become too rote. Watch out for doing something just because that’s the way it’s supposed to be done. Challenge yourself to find out how things can be improved on a daily basis.

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