/ San Francisco, California

Making good decisions in a large organization is always impossible. But it’s especially hard when a new technology sweeps through the culture and consumes everyone’s attention. Once a year, every year, a new thing will appear on the market and be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. You won’t be able to escape discussions about it until one day it looks like you’re behind the game simply because you’re ignoring it.

[ Insert every conversation about front-end frameworks ]

Here’s one example: many years ago I couldn’t get folks on a team to stop talking about emoji. At every turn folks would see the popularity of emoji bloom around them and then they would try and slam it into the website we worked on together. Emoji all the things! The team was obsessed with the emoji they were seeing in emails and websites and apps that they couldn’t imagine a world without them. They believed that our humble website looked out of touch without emoji, where I loudly, aggressively argued that by chasing trends we would never be the ones to set them.

A few months later, the obsession was gone. Overnight we stopped talking about emoji and now every other conversation was focused on some half-baked project about chatbots. Then it was crypto of course, then a few years later it was NFT junk that disappeared just as quickly as it came, and now, today, again with the chatbots. Although they’ve improved quite a bit, I still believe that once the initial excitement wears off it’s easy to see how these tools spit out mostly useless and irrelevant chunks of words that you can’t ever trust.

It’s cool tech, sure. But it ain’t a product.

This might sound like I’m just trying to be contrarian, and for many years I worried about that. I worried that I was just bullish on progress and I simply didn’t like following all these technologies because they were popular. It was high school all over again, where I hated The Beatles because everyone was listening to them all the time.

Show me the boring technologies, the boring things! I thought. Yes, those are the ideas that will last.

After thinking about it for a good long while though, I realize that I’m not against a technology if it contributes to something useful or something grand. Tinkering with anything is always great and letting your curiosity run wild is a-okay with me. What’s really concerning is when everyone is consumed with the technology-first and the problem-last.

I feel like with AI right now there is something there there, sure, but folks are just trying to slam it into everything regardless of whether or not that makes the product better. They don’t start with the idea first and then explore multiple options that leads to this one technology— machine learning or whatever—which just happens to be the right thing to solve it. No! They start with the technology-first and then work backwards to a product. They’re so consumed with the flash of newness and seeing the future (yawn!) that they become star-struck wanting to be at the front and center of this big, world-changing conversation. Their obsession is a failure of discipline and because of that they fail to see what they’re building.

It’s why using an enormous front-end framework to build a blog is a bad idea (many moons ago I worked on a tiny website for a big tech co and I was aghast at the colossal, bloated complexity of their build tools to make a single tiny webpage). Tech-first is why crypto and NFTs was always a bad idea. Tech-first is why collecting vast amounts of data without a clear purpose was, and always will be, a terribly silly idea.

I’m certain now that if you want to build something great you have to see through the tech. And that’s really hard to do when this cool new thing is all that anyone is talking about. But that’s why this one specific thing is the hallmark of a great organization; they aren’t distracted by short-lived trends and instead focus on the problem-first. Relentlessly, through the noise.

So, a reminder for myself here if I ever get swept up in the latest trend: if you want to build anything substantial, if you truly want to build a great product, then the technology has to come last.