Premature optimization, value and waste

Ah, premature optimization, every developer sooner or later hits that. You optimize code, iron it out so there are no extra cycles, no extra memory or what not and not terribly long after you have to take that carefully tailored code apart, just because a new requirement came in. Worse yet, the realization that the optimization was useless in the grand scheme of the app, yes the app works more efficiently but it does not affect anything at all. Some might be proud of the craftsmanship, others might be disappointed with the waste, in any case I’m not here to judge.

I am here to share a story about premature optimization but at a much higher level – a feature level. A few years back when I started writing my app I wanted it to have a feature, let’s call it “frequency determinator”- feed data to the app and it can determine how often an event occurs. In my mind, it was very cool to feed the app data and automagically determine a pattern. Well, I started with the determinator code, it was simple but working. I said “great, it is time to apply it to real data that I have”. But there was a problem, I didn’t have an app, it was just code for frequency generation, I would like to be able to upload data from my phone and see the magic. Ok, no problem, I thought to myself, I just need an UI. I wrote first version of UI, which looked very basic and was incredibly confusing to use at times even to myself. So I rewrote it, added few features, just so the app can be a bit more useful to me. I thought to myself: “well, now that I have UI would it nice to have this and that, I’ll hook up frequency determinator in next little while”. I showed my app to a friend but UI was still confusing. Ok, no problem, I rewrote it again and added more features. Since I already had some data in the app, it was becoming more and more useful. Along the way I did some more refactoring, added just few more features, changed the UI a couple more times and the app was shaping up more and more. I was happy, the app alleviate big chunk of my anxiety and with each new feature, it was becoming more valuable and refined.

Is it there yet? Nope, I still need to rewrite the UI, since there is lot of room for improvement in usability. I can definitely use couple more features and some additional features that I believe can reduce some of my anxiety. So when is “frequency determinator” coming in? I don’t know! As I was using the app, refactoring and adding features, I gradually realized that time for “frequency determinator” hasn’t come yet. There is no need and from the feedback I got, it might not be ever needed. Something that looked like great feature, a centre piece of the jewel, turns out otherwise. Once you use the app, you realize where the value is for you. Once others use the app, you see move value around. The value doesn’t exist in vacuum of your own ideas, value only exists when someone points to it.

So, what now, stop wasting time and start looking for value? I wish I can say that but in reality my ideas of “frequency determinator” kicked started initial development. I might not have started writing the app without believe that “frequency determinator” will be the key to solving my problems. So is there a value in a waste? I believe there is, we “waste time” but because of it, we come up with ideas. I think wasting time looking at the sky or laying around on the coach is actually a good thing. But nothing will come out of waste alone, entertain ideas enough, build something, use it and see if the value is there for you.

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