Evidence that quality is impossible at scale

I often see people suggest that software quality is harder as software—or the organisation—grows. Here’s a collection.

Patrick McKenzie tweeted about the culture of quality at Stripe. Patrick ended with “none of it is sufficient. We are actively dissatisfied with where quality is at the moment”.

Benji Taylor of Family and Honk said that “big corporate software seems to be getting buggier each year, while indie software [seems] to be getting smoother and more reliable”.

Some notable people replied to the thread:

the attention to detail is inversely proportional to the size of the team

details are best cared for when they can be thought about holistically from a macro point of view. large organizations, by design, don't allow for that.

craft just becomes more and more expensive the bigger your product/team is

I wholeheartedly agree high craft is excruciatingly hard to scale

craft was impossible to maintain at Twitter as we rapidly grew

In their article Optimizing For Feelings, The Browser company says that “as our everyday software tools and media became global for the first time, the hand of the artist gave way to the whims of the algorithm. And our software became one-size-fits-all in a world full of so many different people. All our opinions, beliefs, and ideas got averaged out”.

David Khourshid, founder of Stately, says that “adding even a single ‘feature’ (new states + transitions) to an app can introduce an exponentially greater number of ways the app can be used”.

Benji Taylor tweeted that “something all these products have in common is that they are … built by small teams… Too often products lose their soul once they reach a certain scale”.

Paul Stamatiou said that “responses here so far confirm my theory that… high-quality software products are only made by small teams”.

Nathan A. Curtis said “I love Figma and value the experimentation they’re doing to add more and more. But I can sense it… their UI is ‘Adobe Creative Suite’ing. And that carries a usability cost.” Note that he said this in April of 2022, months before Adobe acquired Figma.

Repeating an argument Steve Jobs made, Marty Cagan said, “as a company gets bigger, product historically became less important… Good product people don’t want to work there anymore… They go to a company that values product. I think that’s a better explanation than any other I’ve heard.”

Steve Ruiz said, “unfortunately taste doesn’t scale”.

Packy McCormick wrote about this. Here are some good bits:

Magic can, even must, be a strategy for startups. It’s something they can uniquely create, that incumbents often can’t.

Figma was able to choose … sufficiently advanced technologies at that moment in time without worrying about two decades’ worth of technical debt. As a young startup, it could focus on creating magic and ride that magic until, one day, it, too, had too much technical debt… until the demands of the public markets forced it to make the kinds of practical business-driven decisions that kill the magic.

whether Adobe accelerates the downfall or not … the magic would have, eventually, degraded anyway.

A startup, if it’s lucky, creates magic, turns that magic into dollars, and transitions to life as a successful Big Muggle Company, capable of enormous profits and power but no longer able to conjure magic.

I was planning to bemoan the loss of magic in the products I once loved and try to figure out why the technology I use isn’t as magical as it once was. But that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is more fascinating. The last generation of magical products has matured, turned into Muggles, and in so doing, has cleared space for a new cohort of Magicians.

Blame familiarity. Blame business models. Blame technical debt. Blame multivariate testing and optimization. Blame the cruel coldness of the market. Blame the hedonic treadmill. Blame our unending pursuit of shiny new things. Blame human nature.

Paul Graham said, “One theme I've noticed talking to people in Silicon Valley this trip is that Google has become terminally bureaucratic”.

On the Tim Feriss show, Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison said this:

Just think of any big, major company … for whatever reason, they can’t turn capital into good software. And it would be immensely valuable for them if they could. But they can’t. Or at least, they don’t. And I don’t think it’s for lack of trying or lack of realizing this. And so I think actually, small companies don’t realize how much of an upper hand they have here where if they can create a product that is so much better … it’s going to be really freaking hard for a big company to effectively compete because, again, this organizational transformation into being good at software is just so profoundly hard.