The Pit of Success

The Philosopher Developer

June 19, 2019

If you search for "pit of success" (a well-known concept in the software field, and perhaps in other fields) in Google, the first result is a blog post on Coding Horror by Jeff Atwood. In the post, he links to an MSDN article by Brad Abrams, which as far as I can tell is considered the seminal piece of writing on the topic (though the term itself was apparently coined by a CLR architect named Rico Mariani).

Unfortunately, if you visit the above MSDN blog today, you will see that it's nearly unreadable due to a plethora of rendering artifacts. (My educated guess is that the MSDN blog network must have migrated from one blogging platform to another at some point, and the way the content is escaped clearly changed.) Perhaps this is infuriating to no one but myself; but I view it as a minor tragedy that such an important piece of writing is, in its current form1, so badly misfigured.

Therefore I've taken it upon myself to lovingly restore the original content to a more readable presentation. Without further ado, I present The Pit of Success by Brad Abrams.

The Pit of Success: in stark contrast to a summit, a peak, or a journey across a desert to find victory through many trials and surprises, we want our customers to simply fall into winning practices by using our platform and frameworks. To the extent that we make it easy to get into trouble we fail.

I had a chance hear Rico Mariani do his stump speech on performance of managed code to an audience of very senior technical folks (not sure why they let me in)... As a performance architect on the CLR team Rico has a ton of passion for how we can change internal CLR details to make performance (more specifically workingset) better. He talked about some very cool things we are doing in Whidbey around NGen, VTable layout etc for saving a few bytes per type or instance. All very cool stuff. And in fact we see some fairly substantial performance wins in our performance test cases in the lab.

But our experience with in house, real world applications has been that they are not realizing this level of performance win. Why? Turns out their performance is dominated by other factors. The big wins we realized at the CLR level are just noise compared to other performance problems in the applications. With just a few days of work our pref team was able to improve the performance of one of these in house applications more significantly than all the CLR level improvements combined. Their findings are published here. This is NOT because the app developers are a bunch of clowns. Rather it is because, as hard as we tried in V1, there were still some places where the design of the platform leads them down the wrong path.

Because he was talking (mainly) to a set of platform folks he admonished us to think about how we can build platforms that lead developers to write great, high performance code such that developers just fall into doing the “right thing”. Rico called this the Pit of Success. That concept really resonated with me. More generalized, it is the key point of good API design. We should build APIs that steer and point developers in the right direction. Types should be defined with a clear contact that communicates effectively how they are to be used (and how not to). I am not just talking about the docs and samples (although those are good) but in the design of the APIs. For example, give the “pretty” name to the types most developers should use (ie. “Foo” and “FooBase”).

A powerful thought, crystallized well... Enjoy.

  1. I even checked the Internet Archive, and the earliest snapshot they have, from 2003, still looks terrible. 

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