The business goal

The Philosopher Developer

November 12, 2018

The team met up on Monday morning, as they always did to discuss the items in their backlog.

“Let’s talk about Alice’s ticket,” said Bob, the product owner. “Alice, the summary here says Configure auto-scaling. That sounds like a technical solution. Remind me, what’s the actual business goal there?”

Alice fidgeted in her seat, as all engineers do under the light of a business person’s attention. “Well, I guess it’s to make sure the system stays healthy under production load,” she managed to say. “If we don’t have enough workers to keep up with the queues, message processing could be delayed and eventually our servers might run out of memory and crash.”

Bob thought for a moment. “All right, so it sounds like if we don’t set up auto-scaling, we might not be able to handle peak traffic; is that right?” Alice nodded. “Then let’s update the summary on this ticket to Prepare the servers for peak traffic. I think that better captures the outcome we actually care about without being too prescriptive about a solution. Think of it like this: we don’t actually care about auto-scaling per se, as long as our servers can handle production load. Does that sound right?”

Alice shrugged. “I suppose you’re right. It’s less specific, but I guess that’s fine as long as the final solution meets our needs.”

The next day, Bob met with his supervisor, Carol. While they went over the state of Bob’s project, Carol pointed to an item in the backlog that caught her interest. “This one here,” she said, pointing to Alice’s ticket. “It says Prepare the servers for peak traffic. That sounds like a technical concern. What’s the business goal there?”

Bob cleared his throat. “Well, we don’t want the system to crash while our users are trying to use it,” he said. “That could cause our customers to lose faith in us and hurt our brand.”

Carol nodded. “If I may,” she said, taking Bob’s laptop and editing the field, “perhaps we change this to: Mitigate risk to customers from a production outage.” She handed the laptop back to Bob. “Think of it this way: if our servers were to crash, that in itself wouldn’t matter as long as our customers weren’t negatively impacted.”

Bob shrugged. “I suppose so. It’s a bit less specific, and thus harder to act on; but we can keep that in mind.”

The following day, Carol was chatting with the VP of the department when Bob’s project came up. She mentioned that one of Bob’s devs was doing some work to mitigate the risks of customers being impacted by an outage. “Hmm,” the VP said. “But I wonder, is customer impact itself really what matters to us here? What’s the actual business goal?”

Carol considered the question. After a pause, she replied, “I suppose it isn’t really impact to our existing customers that matters, per se, as long as we continue to acquire customers at a rate that exceeds churn.”

The VP smiled. “That’s right. And just to drive the point home: if there were some project that completely screwed over existing customers and caused a PR nightmare, but it somehow magically secured us a steady stream of new paying customers indefinitely? That would be perfectly acceptable, from a business perspective.”

Carol left the conversation in deep thought. When she got back to her desk, she e-mailed Bob. Thinking we might still want to tweak that ticket about preventing an outage, she wrote. Real goal is to keep customer acquisition healthy. How about “Protect customer acquisition against increased exposure”?

The next day was Thursday, the day of the VP’s weekly debrief with the CEO. The VP mentioned that there were some concerns about possible disruptions to customer acquisition from Carol’s unit and that efforts were underway to protect against those potential disruptions. “Who actually cares about customer acquisition?” the CEO said. “Tell me, what is the real business goal?”

The VP looked surprised at first, but then his eyes lit up with a realization. “Profit,” he said, “that’s what really matters.”

“Exactly right,” the CEO replied. “Think of it this way: even if we never acquired another paying customer for the products in Carol’s unit, if we could continue to increase profit by other means, that would be just fine.”

On Friday the CEO was at a meeting with investors, talking about some of the challenges facing the business. She expressed concern that the company’s profitability could take a hit in the near future.

After the meeting one of the investors pulled her aside. “Listen,” he said, “profitability is a means to an end. At the end of the day, what we all really care about is the return on our investment. Profit is great and all, but honestly just get that valuation up and sell. Make us that return and we’ll all be happy.”

Over the weekend the investor met with his spiritual advisor, where he recounted his conversation with the CEO the day before. His advisor gave him a worried look. “You work so hard, always chasing that return on investment,” she said. “But what is it you’re really after? Why do you need so much money? What is the real goal?”

The investor ruminated the question. “I suppose if I’m honest,” he said at last, “I’m exhausted, and I just want to retire. I don’t actually care about the money. I just want to get to a point where I can stop working so much, without having to stress about supporting my family and living comfortably.”

The spiritual advisor reported to the enclave later that evening. As she approached the table in the center of a dimly-lit room, she removed her human mask to reveal her true lizard form. “My asset is growing weak,” she hissed. “It may be that the time has come to replace him.”

One of the elder members of the enclave spoke up. “Remind us,” he said softly, “why have you been guiding this human? What is it we are hoping to accomplish here?”

The agent answered without hesitation. “Sir, the objective of this mission was to ultimately leverage this man’s firm and its portfolio of technology companies to disrupt global markets and weaken the human economy so that we might take over.”

“That’s right,” the elder said. “So what truly matters is that we can dominate humankind, whether or not we use this man’s company as a means to do so.” The other members of the enclave all expressed their agreement.

The elder later reported to the chamber of The Great One, who awaited him from her towering throne. “Your majesty,” he said, prostrating himself. “Our mission to enslave the human race is progressing as hoped.”

The Great One sighed and looked into the distance. “I grow tired of this mission to enslave humanity. We have already conquered so many worlds. And for what? Only to trap another billion souls to add to our crystal collection?” The Great One gestured lethargically to a glass display housing several glowing trinkets in a corner of the chamber.

At that moment, a lizard technician ran into the room. “Your majesty!” he cried, “our mothership’s computers are being overloaded! Something is causing all our processing units to overheat. If we don’t do something soon, the result will be total system failure.”

The Great One glowered at the technician, then at the elder, who stood there paralyzed. “This is outrageous!” roared The Great One. “Has no one on your incompetent team configured auto-scaling?”