As an engineering manager, I have a certain amount of control over what ends up on our sites and in our systems. Not complete control, my voice is only one in the room, as it should be. One of the most important ways I can contribute to the quality of our sites is by saying no. Blocking or pushing back on requests that are contrary to our goals can be as important as what we decide to do.
The goal is not to prevent change. Change is great, but randomness ruins plans. If you build a hundred features and ten of them don’t fit into the product vision or the technical architecture, those ten will have a disproportionate impact on the team over the life of the product.
The pressure to do one-off features or changes is continual, but it is also quite normal. The stakeholder asking for this change isn’t a bad person, they just have a different perspective. While they may be able to understand how much effort is involved in their request, they are unlikely to understand the long-term costs in terms of maintainability. Often it is difficult for the engineering team to articulate this cost. For a single change it isn't significant, but all these changes add up over time.
Death by a thousand cuts #
One concrete example that has been a constant in my projects, is teams asking for us to add third party scripts. There are a few reasons why this happens, but in my experience, the most common is a request to add a set of tracking code to a # of pages. Someone in the company is running an advertising campaign, and your site is the destination. Everything is nearly done and its days away from going live on Facebook and Twitter. No one looped engineering in before now, of course. An email comes in, often having bounced around, in search of the person who runs the site:
Couple of things to unpack here. Sam hasn't done anything wrong, there's no evil intent. They didn't know to loop engineering in, and they don't know if adding two scripts to a set of pages is hard or at all controversial. They have a job to do and this is just one step.
The simple solution #
Why not just do it? the business wants it, and our site exists to serve the business, so shouldn't we just make a ticket and get it done?
Let’s follow that path for a bit to see where it gets us (hint, simple changes generally aren't that simple).
To close the work item and hit Sam's deadline, we open the page, follow the instructions from each third-party and put all the script references in. Test it, seems to work, no errors, we see network calls to a bunch of places, done. Ship it, close the ticket.
Hard to push back against what is probably an hour's work, right?
Most big sites aren't a bunch of individual pages though, so you'd
probably be editing a common template. To add these scripts only to
the requested pages, you'll need a little IF statement (
if url =-\_\_
or url =\_\_ ... ). Now we are running a bit of logic on all our
pages. It's tiny though, still hard to really raise a red flag. Your
developer “Spidey-sense” is starting to tingle, but the work is done,
Sam is happy.
A few weeks later, another email comes in:
Hey Duncan, thanks so much for helping out with that last request, the campaign is going great. We are trying out something new now, we’ve picked a mix of pages (some from the last campaign and some new ones) and we are adding LinkedIn to the mix. Super excited to see how that compares to the other campaign that is running. Anyway, the new ads start tomorrow and there is a lot of $$ being spent here, so if you could get these new scripts up that would be great. Scripts and a list of pages attached like last time. Thanks so much! Owe you a coffee :)
A new work item is created, maybe ends up with a new developer. If they saw the code from the last request, they might just extend it with some more if statements, to be consistent. Or maybe they’ll go a different way, it’s hard to predict, especially with a busy team.
One possible path is that these requests keep trickling in over the years, various bits of code are added, and we end up with a block of terrible code running on all our pages. Regardless of how many times this happens though, even doing it once can have unintended consequences.
Months after we add some third-party scripts, we end up looking at this page and we see an issue.
Choose your adventure time, the page is...
Performing poorly, the third-party script must work in any situation, so it loads its own version copy of jQuery and two other scripts you already have on the page.
Failing. Turns out the third-party script was updated and now has a conflict with something else on the page.
Dropping cookies. Most ad tracking scripts are going to drop cookies and the exact behavior could change over time. You carefully thought through privacy and GDPR for your scripts. Did you re-evaluate for every update to some ‘random ad platform’ script?
Every case described above gets worse over time. Two years from now, you do an audit of all the cookies you drop. Will you catch every one-off page that does its own special thing? If the Ad campaign ends after two months, do you remember to remove this code, or does it live on forever?
A better way to handle these requests #
Third party script requests are just one example and I am sure you have your own set of examples. I've seen similar requests for one-off redirects, custom variations on styles or headers, etc. The common element is that it is a special-case request, seemingly one-off, and disconnected from any larger vision or roadmap. We know it’s a bad idea to hack this in, despite pressure or temptation to just do it. It is hard to quantify the negatives though, which puts the developer in a difficult spot.
I could tell you to ‘just say no’ to anything like this, and sometimes I do that myself, but that's not always reasonable or even appropriate. First, we should try to understand if this is a genuine business need. Are these ad campaigns important? Do we need to track their results?
Next, we take a step back from the specifics of the request and turn it into the actual business need. Sam asked us to add these scripts, but what they really want is to report on the effectiveness of their ad campaign. The script might be the right approach, but it’s always good to turn any request that has jumped ahead to implementation back into a description of the real goal. Can we accomplish within the existing capabilities of our platform? We have analytics on the site, could we add distinct tracking ids as query strings to the ads and report on them that way?
In the end, if this is needed and there isn’t any existing way to handle it, then we are back to the original request. At this point, we still have options that reduce the negative aspects of adding these scripts. Talk to Sam, or the set of Sams who work on ad campaigns. Are we planning to do a lot of these? Generally going all-in on the same three platforms?
If so, dig into the docs for each platform, so you can determine the best way to implement their scripts. Are the scripts the same for every campaign? Add an option in your site admin to turn “Advertising Scripts” on/off for a set of pages. If that type of self-serve config is too much work, test adding the scripts to every page. I know that sounds bad, but it might be a better solution than some sort of complicated configuration to control where they appear.
Now that we've decided to do this right, it’s a platform capability not a one-off hack. You can test it in depth, include it in your performance and privacy plans, and take it into account when you are making changes.
Handling these requests properly is a lot more work than a hack, in the short term, but it is the only sustainable option. We need to deliver on business requests, but remember that a stable, maintainable, and quality site is also a business priority. Sacrificing the long-term health of your system for a never- ending set of day-to-day requests is not a workable solution.
I understand this can be a hard sell.
You will be asked to “just take a short-cut this one time”. Sometimes you won't have the support needed to win the battle and you will have to do it. Try to minimize the impact of this type of work by
Setting a time to revisit the implementation (to remove or improve it).
Categorize and document "one-off" requests. If you can point at an ongoing pattern, it’s easier to justify doing a proper solution.
One-off solution results in an issue? It seems wrong to say, "I told you so", but it’s more support for your push back on these requests. Write it up and provide some clear data though, don't expect anyone else to remember or to make the connection to the original request.
Policies as an appeal to an external authority #
Finally, the best advice I can give you is to create written guidelines/policies. Even if you wrote it, being able to say "we don't add third-party scripts to our pages outside of a defined feature" is a wonderful way to steer the conversation in the right direction.
My personal approach to this specific issue is to say, “We don’t do that”, suggest how they can use our existing capabilities to accomplish at least some of their goals, and if it turns out to be a high enough priority then we move to planning out the proper ‘real’ way to provide a sustainable solution.
If urgency, as in Sam's original request with a day’s notice, forces a short-term solution, we pro-actively plan to resist/remove at a specific date. I don't always get what I want of course, and some things slip through without my knowledge, but the fewer of these that happen the better off my team and system will be.