The Insurmountable Cliff

3 min read

Imagine this: you are staring at a sheer cliff. In order to prosper, you must get to the top of the cliff. The question posed is: how do you get to the top of the cliff?

First you must take stock of what you have in the way of skills and materials:

  • Are you a climber in general with access to the right tools?
  • Do you have access to the right tools and the ability to learn to climb?
  • Do you have someone with you who is an experienced climber and could help you get to the top?
  • Are you a freeclimber?
  • Is there a really long ladder available?
  • Can you call in a helicopter to lift you up?
  • Do you have access to blasting explosives?
  • Do you have a jetpack?
  • Can you teleport?

The questions are ordered somewhat around likelihood/feasibility but you probably can’t teleport… and probably don’t have a jetpack. So what do you do if you can not go up the cliff wall? Do you continue to stare and let it be the blocker for your prosperity or do you come up with an alternate plan?

So assuming you do not have any of the skills or materials above, the choice is generally to find the long way up.

Technical Debt is commonly plagued with problems that seem like cliffs, oceans, pits, and other unassailable problems. In my current org, there are constant reminders to break the problem down. The question remains: how do you actually get to the top of the cliff?

More importantly, what happens if you do not get to the top of the cliff? For many people and organizations, that cliff becomes all-consuming. The question is framed as “How do we climb it? We have no skills, no tools, and we have to get to the top!”

Getting to the top does not necessarily require anything more than time and the ability to move: you can very likely walk to the top of the cliff.

For many this seems “too slow.” It’s possible that it is the second slowest method, aside from waiting for the cliff to be weathered down over time. It involves walking to wherever it is possible to make progress upward, making that progress, then walking back to the top of the cliff. There could be false starts. You could walk the wrong direction and end up at the intersection of the cliff and the sea.

Unless you have the necessary skills and tools to do otherwise, however, the alternative to “too slow” is “not moving” and that can be deadly to your organization or your career.

We are going to add an additional problem - one that does not exist with a cliff in real life: technical debt will accrue over time, so effectively the cliff gets taller. A person or an organization can wait at the bottom of the cliff, and many do, and many get left behind.

Taxi companies failed to move forward - and have effectively been displaced by ride-hailing apps wherever they’re available. Restaurants that still fail to allow internet-based reservations fall behind. Software companies that still use fat clients are eschewed for those that have web and mobile interface.

Standing still is always an option. Moving, however, will have you at least making an effort, even if it is initially the wrong one or the long one.

The percentage of people in this world capable, ready, and willing to climb a sheer rock face, even assisted, is very low. If one gets hung up on only being able to climb the face, rather than just find a way to get to the top, which is the reach challenge, the problem may never truly be addressed.

For now, if you can not climb, start walking.

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Stephen Sadowski

Leader focusing on quality, delivery, technical debt management, and leadership education about DevOps and SRE practices