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I don't like Breaking Things

I don’t like breaking things. I never have. I hate it. When I was a kid and we got our first computer I was completely afraid of breaking it. It was a super expensive item at the time and I had no idea how it worked. And I didn’t know if I would completely break it and we didn’t really have the money to get a new one if I did. Sure I was curious and I was fascinated by it. I wanted to do cool things on this computer. But I didn’t want to break it. My sister was also using it and playing games on there and I didn’t have the hubris that I definitely would be able to put it back together if I broke it. Looking at the trade-off between probably learning something but also ruining my sister’s day it just wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to know how it worked, it was about respect. And it’s not like I never broke the computer or anything on it. But I never approached it lightly and was very uncomfortable when it happened. And I sure wasn’t proud of it.

Fast forward 25 years or so I have gone to a bunch of LAN parties as a kid, went to university to study computers and eventually got a master’s degree in computer science. I’m running most of my own infrastructure, have built my own home router, had DNS servers from a Dutch ISP take zone transfers from a computer running in a camper van toilet, and upgraded PHP on a big e-commerce website without downtime. It’s fair to say I’ve learned a couple of things and know my way around computers most of the time. And yet I am still deeply uncomfortable breaking things.

What’s wrong with breaking things?

Ironically I now work in an industry that basically worships breaking things. From famous company mottos like “move fast and break things” to phrases that get quoted out of context like “ask for forgiveness, not permission” everybody seems to love being able to break stuff. What it doesn’t take into account is that breaking things doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Your actions always impact others. Even if you’re on-call, the nature of our complex systems means that nobody has a perfect overview over all interactions. And nobody can be sure they will be the only one to get paged and not someone else downstream who is just sitting down to eat with their family. And claiming you can is in my opinion more an unhealthy sign of hubris than healthy engineering. More likely than not it’s gonna ruin someone else’s day.

In addition the romantic picture of the engineer who is not afraid of breaking things and thus disrupting whole industries on the way is not an evenly distributed one. As Kate Losse already wrote in “the unbearable whiteness of breaking things” it’s usually just the white men again who are able to get away with it. For everyone else this is likely gonna end less well.

It’s also a very unhealthy and non-collaborative way of approaching things. It assumes a very negative default instead of working together. And it keeps reinforcing a stereotype that only works because there’s a team of people picking up the pieces once the magic disruptive engineer is done.

But it’s the only way to learn

Now you might say “Hold up there. Breaking things is the only way to learn. You don’t know a technology until you’ve seen it break.” And I partly agree with you there. However there is a big difference between doing gamedays where things are turned off and shut down in a controlled environment, where everybody got a heads up this is going on, and systems are observed as a team to learn how they behave. This is a great way to learn about technology. And I encourage everyone to do this. Equally if things do break it’s paramount to investigate those incidents in a blameless way to maximize the things to learn from it.

However: Just testing in prod. Not bothering to write unit tests. Not going through staging before going to prod. Rolling out a change to all servers at once just to save some time. Those are the things no one learns a lot from. Other than the fact that you can quickly make a day awful for a bunch of people. And that you might be a shitty coworker.

Let me be very explicit. I don’t think you can prevent every failure from happening. I don’t think people should be punished if something breaks during their daily work. Things break. There’s nothing you can do about that. What I don’t condone is approaching everything with the attitude that it’s ok to actively break things. That it should be the default. That your need of changing something is more important than someone else’s need of not being interrupted. That it’s ok to lean all the way towards efficiency and away from thoroughness. This is not disruption it’s just lack of empathy. The default should always be to try and not break anything. There should be a way to make it as easy as possible to catch errors early on. To test things before they go to prod. To get confidence in something without disrupting someone else’s day. And if there isn’t, maybe this is something to spend time on making better first. It beats breaking things by a long shot. And is actually something to be proud of.