A note about complexity

I came across this very interesting reading about complexity: https://iveybusinessjournal.com/publication/coping-with-complexity/

What was the most useful advice that I’ve found there was the idea of improvisation. So far in the context of professional work I had rather negative connotation of improvisation. I’ve seen it as a way of hiding lack of preparation or knowledge that was rather degrading expected quality.

But I was wrong. Improvisation turns out to be a great tool that anyone can start using relatively easy to deal with complexity. The inspiration is taken from theater improvisation and music jam sessions where the play is based on “yes, and…” rule.

Basically the rule says that whoever enters the show, has to build his part based on what others have already said or played. Not trying to negate or start something irrelevant. Participants are expected to continue and extend the plot that was already created.

I find this rule very useful when working on the complex projects. I can recall many situations in projects when there seem to be so many options with so much uncertainty that it seemed impossible to progress in the right direction. Those situations can be unblocked by improvisation, where we are allowed to progress based on knowledge that is limited. And in VUCA world we all have limited understanding about any subject that is non-trivial. The key is to identify the minimum set of facts required to progress and create progress based on your own expertise on top of what was already created. The facts from which to start, are identified by the skill of listening to others, not focusing solely on your own part.

The rule of not negating others work is the key factor here. You are allowed to suggest turns into left or right but it should still be a progress of the same journey. We should not start from a completely new point on our own, as it creates even more VUCA.

By using this method we can progress even when we are not sure where to go (like in machine learning). We can use joint force to explore and move faster. While we move on, we will make mistakes but also crate chances for victories. Moving on is the key. Staying in palce paralyzed by hard decision is something that may kill the project. And negating or ignoring what was already said and done, does not create progress.

In VUCA world, being certain that we are on the optimal path is impossible. What is possible, is exploration. If we are focused and making every small step based on competent knowledge, then we can expect that partial results will be achieved on daily basis and eventually also bigger goals are very likely to be met. Probably in a way that was not initially expected.

How to save money in software projects?

Building software is expensive. Software developers and other necessary professionals have high salaries. Coding is time consuming. We all know that.

So how we can save money? By hiring cheaper developers? By hiring developers who code faster? By working longer hours? Well, not really, those solutions, if even rational, are only about moving costs from one place to another.

Biggest savings we can get by strictly controlling the scope of the project.

There is too much waste in the industry.  Many teams build features that nobody uses. Developers are solving abstract problems that do not really exist from business domain perspective. Business is asking for things that never convert to added value. Software should be an investment but often is only a cost.

How to prevent that? It’s hard, but here is my advice:

  • Think at least 3 times if the idea converts to value before starting building. Ask for feedback. Gather data. Starting a project based solely on intuition is a risky business. Without solid data, it’s like gambling. Money can be lost in this game, so be aware of how much risk you can accept.
  • Ok, so you have a proven arguments that the idea is wort building. Can it be achieved simpler? Maybe there is already a tool that you can use? Affordable SaaS platform? Open-source software? Think 3 times about how to make it efficiently.
  • If the project is not a standard thing that you did already – start small. Do the research. Build proof of concept of the unknown parts. Define solid technical foundation for the project. It will be harder to change it later. Check what works and what doesn’t in your case.
  • Do not involve big development resources before you know what you expect from them. Prepare the project. Know your budget. Know your timeline. Check with technical people if the assumptions are realistic. Make at least a rough estimate. Think about the risks that may impact the estimate. Are the risks acceptable?
  • Verify the results often and early. There should be something usable produced as soon as possible. Start from the core business. Do not build “nice to have” things when core functionality is not ready. Nice to have things may kill the project. Be strict about the scope and constantly challenge it. Is this story or sub-task worth doing? Asking that question is not a signal of laziness, it is a signal of caring about the budget, the timeline and the impact.

Based on my experience, especially from start-up and innovative projects, those are the rules that are often forgotten. We tend to rush, but as a result, instead of being quicker we may be slower because of loosing the correct way. We want to be agile but we forget about planning and create too much chaos instead of agility. We say that we care about quality of the product so we build the whole plastic toolbox instead of just one precise tool at time. We let engineers to own the estimates but we are not communicating the constraints and not controlling the scope.

Those are the major sins that I try to address by the above rules. I hope that you will find it useful also in your project.

What matters in creating software?

What are the most important things when building software? Is it architecture? Frameworks? Process? No. Those are only tools.

What really matters is the fact of delivering useful solution. Usefulness defined in terms of number of users or revenue. Useful solutions are not delivered too late or too early – they are delivered on time. Useful solutions are not too slow or too buggy – they have acceptable performance and are reliable.

What also matters is the satisfaction of the team after building the solution. It could be that kind of satisfaction which painter has when working on a painting – satisfaction during the process. There can be also some pain in the process but that would be another type of satisfaction – the one that athlete has after finishing a marathon. It was painful but feels so good after the finish. It could be also like a satisfaction of a cook who has just discovered new spices and learned something useful for the future.

Studying architecture or frameworks is also important, because it makes us efficient and more likely to deliver useful solutions. But the goal is not to learn, the goal is to apply the knowledge and make things happen.

Divide, eliminate and conquer

Ancient Romans were saying “divide and conquer”. I really like this rule both in system design and project management. To adjust it to contemporary times which are full of distractions I would also add “eliminate” phase. It helps to avoid conquering false targets and allows to focus only on biggest value goals.

Please find below some examples of what this rule means in practice.


  • Split complex problem into a number of smaller problems
  • Isolate application modules
  • Assign well defined responsibilities to teams and individuals
  • Break up project into phases
  • Define sub-tasks for stories to implement
  • Set clear SMART goals


  • Identify problems that can be ignored
  • Reduce scope
  • Remove distractions
  • Ask “why?”
  • Focus on goals, not procedures


  • Execute goals with deep believe
  • Don’t give up
  • Improve
  • Know when is enough
  • Celebrate success

“Divide, eliminate and conquer” approach often helped me when I was feeling overwhelmed by a difficult problem or had to choose which path to go. I believe it is useful in wide range of situations starting from fulfilling New Year’s resolutions up to setting and executing enterprise strategy.

A story about running a software house

The beginning

In 2013 I’ve co-founded Epicode software house. Before starting the company we were doing after-hours projects with my business partner. He was handling sales and design. I was handling development. This is also how we split the duties in Epicode. He became CEO and I was CTO. At the beginning, it was quite an easy role in a company of 2 employees.

Working as we liked

We would probably not start Epicode as a full-time job if not the big customer open for cooperation: Grupa Pracuj where we both worked before. Grupa Pracuj was just starting a new startup: emplo.com and needed to build a development team for it. They become our biggest customer and shareholder. It was a good deal. We had financial security and independence. We could do the software business as we liked. Our customers including Grupa Pracuj cared only about results.

Quick start and early success

I’ve relocated back from Ireland to Poland to start working full time at Epicode. In July 2013 there was me, my partner, emplo.com project starting and 3 other small ecommerce customers we had as a result of our part-time moonlight work before Epicode. Good start to grow. Soon we started hiring and rented an office. After 2 years we were over 20 people: developers, testers and designers.

Growing challenges

Next 3 years has shown us exactly the challenges of growing company over 30 employees. For that you need to delegate and to have middle-management. We were not ready for that. As local “superheros” we felt that we must be directly involved in every project to be sure that it will succeed. We were focusing on project-related work, not on growing the company. There was also a constant feeling that if we hire more people we are not sure if we will manage to get enough customers. On the one hand we always had a big workload, but we were never sure if this workload is stable enough to hire more people.

When running a software house, the biggest challenge is to have proper balance between new projects coming-in and number of hired people. The only cost that matters are salaries. If you hire too many people you can quickly produce lost.  Crucial part is to have predictable sales pipeline so that you can plan at least couple of months ahead.

Learning sales

We did an effort to hire a sales person but it has only shown how unprepared we were to scale. That person reached out to over 500 potential customers but didn’t even manage to setup a single meeting. It turned out that sales person did not understand what we were really selling. For us it was obvious: we were listening what problems customer wants to solve and then we were proposing how we would approach that by providing appropriate software solution. It usually worked. Our sales meetings were not about sales, it was about free consultancy after which the customer simply wanted to work with us. But this approach did not scale without proper staff training, marketing content and well-prepared case studies. With an ad-hoc sales person concentrated solely on rates that we offer and deadlines that we can meet, the effect was terrible. We were treated like spammers.

Goal bigger than sales – do what you like doing

But the reality was that we were not convinced if we would really like to focus on marketing, sales and growing the company.  Once we have got a project we were sinking into delivering it, forgetting about searching the next thing to do after current project will be done. When I was working on non-technical stuff I had a feeling of loosing time and energy on something that is not really my pair of shoes. Using social media for promotion? Blah… We are hackers, developers, creators, not marketers. If somebody does not want to work with us, it’s them who should regret. I was not realising how arrogant that way of thinking was.

Our company started to drift into games direction and developing our own game. Many people we had onboard wanted to work on own product which would give much more freedom on how to work. Not to relay solely on B2B sales, contracts and timelines, especially that we were not mastering that processes. Developing a game had a chance to become a high-margin business – with higher risk but also with higher gratitude if it will turn out to be successful.

But for me personally it was not something I wanted to do. I was excited about solving real-life problems that companies or end-users have. I didn’t want to close myself in a dark room coding a virtual world. My preference was working with people and business processes.

There is no progress without change

After 5 years at Epicode I decided to go my own path. We had great time at Epicode with plenty of success stories and delivered projects. But I needed a fresh context and new fuel. Now I am excited to be a part of scale-up process at Mash.com.  Scaling is something that failed for us in Epicode, that’s why I am so enthusiastic about being a part of it at Mash.