9 Software Design Lessons I Learned While Scaling A Startup

Published: January 06, 2019

Over three years, I worked as a Backend Team Lead at Elanic (India’s Biggest Community For Buying and Selling). I learned a lot about software development during these “firey” years of scaling Elanic from 3 users in August 2015 to 3 million users in August 2018.

I started with no prior experience in building a production-grade software system. I thought I had a good foundation of programming concepts. How hard could it be? Little that I knew, I am in for lots of sleepless nights and burning myself out in the quest of stabilizing Elanic’s backend system.

Trying to create new, challenging things is good for society, good for the industry and good for my own life. ~Sachio Semmoto

No other experience could have taught me what I know today. In this article, I share my experiences and the software design lessons I learned the hard way.

Table Of Contents

  1. Start With The Data Model
  2. Separate Your Concerns
  3. Leverage Rule Engines
  4. Prioritize Software Testing
  5. There Will Always Be Bugs
  6. Things Will Break
  7. Setup Logging And Error Handling Early
  8. It Will Take Longer Than You Think
  9. There Are No Coincidences
  10. Conclusion

1. Start With The Data Model

Start Software Development With Data Model

Business people often care about data and concentrate on how this data can be transformed, combined and separated to meet business requirements.

Whereas software developers tend to care about the classes, functions, and processes they are writing.

This mismatch in the thinking process leads to further misunderstanding among business and engineering teams.

Six months into my job as a backend developer, I realized I need to understand better business requirements and design system flexible enough to adapt that frequency of change.

Hence, Data Modelling.

Data modeling aims to define:

  • The data contained in the database (e.g., entities: devices, profiles, products, carts, orders, wallets, etc.)
  • The relationships among data items (e.g., users can create products, profiles can add these products to their cart, etc.)
  • The constraints on data (e.g., at max only 30 products can be bought together, the user should not be able to use wallet credit if wallet balance becomes less than zero, etc.)

Data Modeling Pipeline

Following data modeling guidelines gave me a clear understanding of business requirements and teams were able to understand and communicate themselves better.

2. Separate Your Concerns

When I started backend development in Elanic, the problem we were trying to solve seemed natural. It’s a social community engaged in buying and selling of lifestyle items.

It took me seven consecutive sleepless nights to keep the servers running during our growth phase to understand there is nothing natural or straightforward about it.

Once we stabilized the system to sustain the traffic, I realized the whole codebase is the unsustainable mesh of reads and writes operations.

Separation Of Concerns

Next month went into a rewrite of the critical sections using proper abstractions — separating read and write operations.

Abstractions are the solutions to general problems. Consider + function. It is a solution to adding numbers in general. Without input arguments, it is quite useless.

Applying these abstractions to a particular set of arguments is a solution to a specific problem.

We often think of software as a solution to a particular issue, like accounting software is the solution to the problem of accounting. An e-commerce website is a solution to selling online.

But, it is a bit like kitchen being a solution to cooking. It doesn’t tell the whole story. If you open the cabinet, you realize that preparing food is an extremely complicated process.

It involves solving a lot of smaller problems, like cutting, heating, mixing ingredients, etc. Our software is the same. It’s hundreds of solutions to lots of subproblems.

As a software developer, when we develop a new system, our task is as involved as inventing a cuisine. Our tools are much more malleable than steel so that we can iterate faster, but we still need to fill our arsenal with tools and develop techniques to select the right one and apply it in the right way.

3. Leverage Rule Engines

Once we decided to introduce voucher support in buy-flow of our application. To do it faster I hardcoded the coupon code and validation logic within the codebase. Next day onwards, the marketing team kept asking to change the coupon almost every day, and we kept re-writing the same block of code instead of moving forward and focusing on other features.

We couldn’t properly test these deployments and ended up providing lousy user experiences. Later on, similar kind of changes got introduced in deciding commission, delivery charges, pickup charges, etc. Thankfully, my mentor, Abhishek Chauhan introduced me to rule engines right before I was reaching the limit of my patience.

If you are not familiar with business rule engines, you may be wondering why you would want to use one?

In most software applications, complex rule processing often takes the form of nested if-else blocks of code which can be very difficult to interpret and to maintain.

If rules change (which they always do), a developer must work with a business person to define the new rule sets. He must then understand the existing implementation and realize what’s happening to make the required modifications. These changes must then be recompiled, tested, and redeployed.

Business Rules Engine

A business rules engine provides a means to separate the rules or logic of an application from the remaining codebase. Separating these rules offer enormous benefits.

  • Business rule engines allow the declarative style of programming. Rules define what should happen, without describing how should it be happening. It makes codebase much easier to read. Also, it becomes easier to make changes without introducing bugs.
  • We can describe these rules in an easy-to-understand language for business people. It enables business people to validate and even modify rules without involving software developers.
  • Also, you don’t need to go through. If your deployment process requires passing each line of code through a strict workflow of recompilation and testing, leveraging rule engines can be a huge time saver.

4. Prioritize Software Testing

In an early stage startup, feature requests tend to change so often that writing automated tests takes a backfoot over manual testing and direct deployments.

It’s not until too late that you realize that the trade-off has been too expensive.

I won’t suggest you write tests from the start (ideally you should), but at-least write testable code.

Side Effects Of Software Testing

Some people write code in a way that is hard, or even impossible, to write a good unit test for it. So, what makes the program hard to test? Let’s review some bad-practices and code smells developers must avoid when writing testable code.

Uncontrolled Non-Determinism and Side Effects

Methods with non-deterministic behavior and side-effects lead to deceptive, hard to understand, non-reusable, tightly coupled, and untestable code. They tend to have destructive effects on your codebase.

On the contrary, functions that are both deterministic and free of side-effects are much easier to test, reason about, and reuse to build more extensive programs. In functional programming, these methods are called pure functions. To test them you just need to pass required input arguments and check the result for correctness.

Impurity is toxic

What makes code hard to test is hard-coded context driven values which may change anytime. These impurities are hard to replace, override, or abstract away in some other way.

If method Foo() depends on non-deterministic method Bar(), Foo()becomes non-deterministic as well. Eventually, it ends up poisoning the entire system. Multiply all these problems by the size of a real-life software application, and you’ll find yourself entangled with a hard to maintain codebase, full of anti-patterns, secret dependencies, and all sorts of ugly and unpleasant things.

5. There Will Always Be Bugs

There Will Always Be Bugs In Software Development

Straight out of college, I was a software developer striving for perfection. Any bug in my code frustrated me to the core. I wanted my work to be flawless, like a clockwork, yet bugs appeared.

It took me two years of professional experience to understand the reality: there will always be bugs.

I learned to change my attitude toward software development — aiming for excellence instead of perfection.

I learned the phrase “get it right the first time” doesn’t exist in software development. No matter how much effort you make, bugs will always find a way to crop up.

Bugs pretty much can be defined as “that didn’t cross our minds.”

If you want to ensure impeccable software quality, write less code that does less stuff, and then spend a lot of time honing that piece of code. However, it is not a realistic course of action to take.

You need to understand that bugs are an unavoidable byproduct of software development. Instead of trying to eradicate software bugs once and for all, you should focus on building a system that lets you quickly troubleshoot the problems, fix the bugs, and deploy the fixes.

Software developers need to understand — the absence of bugs is merely one parameter for software’s success, but not even close to the most important one.

Usefulness. A useful software trumps a bug-free software anytime. The value of software depends far more upon the problem it solves than the quality by which it does so.

6. Things Will Break

Software development is a process. It’s always evolving, never really finished. Today your software sucks, my software sucks, we all are writing shitty software. With bugs! But it’s shipping! Next time we will do better.

Today you improved the application layer of your software system and resolved all the issues. Next day you will realize the problem in the database layer has brought the whole system down. Once that is fixed, your infrastructure layer will disappoint you.

The cycle will keep repeating. Things will always be breaking.

Software Updates

The unhappy stakeholders or customers will mock you for this. Validate their belief that you’ve let them down. I agree what we wrote isn’t perfect. We won’t argue with you on that. Promise to look at their problems, and if possible fix it in next release.

I have realized the best way to learn software design is to break it. It doesn’t mean that you should start ripping through a stable codebase and start rewriting is as an exercise.

Start by breaking off a small piece. Do we even need this function? What happens if we remove this variable? Be curious about how it all works, and fix it.

While learning to be good at software development, controlled destruction breeds confidence. The most direct way to improve as a software developer is to be fearless when it comes to changing your code. Software developers who are afraid of a broken system are developers who will never mature into professionals.

7. Setup Logging And Error Handling Early

When developing a new software system, one of the first things you must do is add logging and error handling, because both are useful from the very beginning.

For all software systems that are bigger than a handful of lines of code, you need some way of knowing what happens in the program.

Perhaps not when it is working as expected, but as soon as it doesn’t, you must be able to see what’s happening.

Importance Of Logs In System Failure

The same goes for error handling — errors and exceptions happen in the beginning too, so the sooner you systematically handle them, the better.

8. It Will Take Longer Than You Think

Have you ever made a wrong estimate?

According to Daniel Kahneman’s research in the book Thinking Fast and Slow, there is a fair chance you would say yes.

We are all bad at estimating. The reason why we are worse in estimates is that we don’t seem to understand what they are. We don’t know what they are supposed to be. We don’t see why we do them. We don’t know how to do them.

Estimate Provided By A Software Developer

The problem with estimates is that they breed mistrust. Once you give an estimated deadline, it immediately transforms into a contract and commitment. Then you miss it!

Have you ever missed an estimate?

When you miss an estimate, the stakeholders assume that it was a commitment of some kind and you are not trustworthy.

Let me give you my example of making a terrible estimation:

The early backend system of Elanic was written using PHP and MySQL. When I discussed with founders, they painted a beautiful picture of the scale we would be handling.

There is going to be a multitude of social interactions, buying & selling of items, logistics tracking, feeds engagements, etc. We need to build a system which could handle such features and the scale of millions of users.

My job was to migrate it to a new stack using NodeJS, MongoDB, and Elasticsearch along with maintaining the current system. I brainstormed the new software architecture and presented it.

My boss asked how long is it going to take? Well, it is a few API calls to write. Four weeks and we would be ready to launch.

We launched the new backend twelve months later. That was 12X of what was estimated.

The problem seemed straightforward in the start. But I could not have known the issues without actually deep diving and trying to solve them.

I learned it is effortless to give an estimate for a project deadline. But it is tough to hit it precisely.

Even as of today most of my projects take three times longer than the time I forecast.

Software Development Estimates - Expectation Vs Reality

There are so many external factors involved, communicating the requirements effectively, a simple merge turns out to be the cause of a catastrophic bug, or an API call doesn’t work as promised, etc. It is quite common to run into unexpected problems.

9. There Are No Coincidences

Startups are really good at creating what I call “Fake Urgencies.” People will come to you and say something like “if we don’t do this by tomorrow, we are doomed.”

As programmers, we’re under constant pressure to deliver code quickly. The most important lesson I learned in the last three years is “haste always makes waste.”

You should always take time to think about risks involved throughout the whole process.

Good software design is not an accident, it is the result of meticulous planning and leveraging exceptional programming skills.

Never believe in coincidences, when you are developing a new feature, or fixing bugs. You committed a bug fix, and an independent service becomes unavailable? Not an accident.

There Are No Coincidences In Software Development

Ignoring such occurrences, and not spending time investigating the issue may bring the whole system down. In some cases make you lose your sleep and mental sanity.

Conclusion

If you made it till this section, CONGRATULATIONS!. I thank you for your commitment. I hope you feel less anxious after reading my experiences

Step By Step Guide To Software Development

If I would like you to take in one lesson from my experiences in the post it’s going to be:

Software development is hard work. A clear codebase and flexible software architecture is no accident. Very few programs come out right the first time or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that building reliable, scalable, and flexible software application is hard, it’s because it is hard.

We 💚 your feedback

In this post, I shared the lessons I learned while working for an early stage startup. If you have had such experiences while working as a software developer, Comment Below! You can also share your feedback through Github or Slack

References and Further Reading

  1. MongoDB Data Modeling