Fear, shark attacks, and “Will it scale?” 02 Oct 2006
19 comments Latest by elnate
People like scary movies. And roller coasters. We like to be afraid. We get off on it. It’s one of those primal emotions that titillates us and gets our blood flowing.
Fear clouds our judgement though. Our fear radars tune in to things that have a slim-to-none chance of ever happening. In fact, what we fear is often quite different than what’s actually threatening us.
Terror, disease, and sharks
Look at the widespread fear over terrorism. Politicians and newspapers know fear gets votes and sells papers. But when you read something like “Don’t Be Terrorized,” you realize the level of fear is way out of proportion to the actual danger. Your risk of dying in a plausible terrorist attack is actually much lower than your risk of dying in a car accident, by walking across the street, by drowning, in a fire, by falling, or by being murdered. But CNN and Fox realize viewers want to hear about suitcase bombs, not seat belts, so that’s what we get.
Or look at the anxiety surrounding unusual diseases that come along: bird flu, anthrax, smallpox, West Nile virus, SARS, etc. Scary! But the fear just doesn’t match the risk (see “Alive and well: The fear epidemic”). We would be far better off focusing on greater threats like AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. But those diseases don’t tweak our fear radars the same way. Been there, done that.
And don’t even get me started on shark attacks.
Scaling and mental stiffies
Fear is part of business and technology too. I was reminded of this when reading Chris Petrilli’s views on scaleability. His argument: You aren't Google so don't worry about fantasy scaling issues.
“You are not going to become that popular, so don’t sweat it. You can sweat it if you get that level of success…You have to be able to move fast enough to get to the position of popularity, unless you truly have a one-of-a-kind idea, for that sort of success. Seriously, this argument is built on the mental masturbation of ‘what if I was Google?’ But you aren’t, so just stop. Quit sweating the problems that give you a mental stiffy, and work on the problems that are truly hard: ease-of-use, process, transparency, discoverability and the whole use experience.”
There are certain problems that give us, as Chris puts it, a mental stiffy. “Will it scale?” is one of those problems. It’s a shark attack fear. “It’s possible my site could be the next MySpace. It could happen, right?!”
Well, yeah, it’s possible. But not likely. Very not likely.
The truth is the overwhelming majority of web apps are never going to reach that stage. And even if you do start to get overloaded it’s usually not an all-or-nothing issue. You’ll have time to adjust and respond to the problem. Plus, you’ll have more real-world data and benchmarks after you launch which you can use to figure out the areas that need to be addressed.
Allocate your fear properly
When it comes to building a web app, some things create more fear than they should…
Fear: It won’t scale
Truth: You’re not going to be Google overnight.
Fear: Too many bugs
Truth: As long as they don’t wipe the database, you can live with most bugs for a while.
Fear: Too few features
Truth: You can always add features later.
Fear: Never go down
Truth: Once-in-a-while downtime won’t scare people away.
Fear: It’s too simple
Truth: Simple solutions are fine if they get the job done.
Fear: They’ll copy us
Truth: It’s about the execution, not the idea.
Fear: We must sound serious
Truth: Trying to sound serious all the time makes you bland and unremarkable. It’s ok to be playful and have personality.
So get a grip. Yes, these things matter. But some people get hysterical over these issues before they even deserve to be on the radar. If you fear one of the above issues, make sure it’s due to a genuine risk and not just something that’s giving you a mental stiffy. Otherwise you may be wasting time chasing phantom problems.
The flip-side is that you need to recognize genuine threats — even if they’re “boring” issues. Things like these are a lot more likely to actually cripple your chances of success:
Taking forever to launch
Running out of money
Not solving a real problem
Designing a confusing UI
Obsessing over the wrong things
Trying to do too much at once
Never ignore real here-and-now threats in order to focus on maybe-in-the-future threats.
We all know FDR’s famous line “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But the part that followed those words is often overlooked: “Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Don’t let unjustified fears paralyze you. Advance!