A recurring cliche at tech companies is that they use the “right tool for the job”. This is meant to show that the company is pragmatic, and not dogmatic, about the technology they use. It’s supposed to be a “good thing”.
for example – “We’re predominantely a nodeJS shop, but we also have a few microservices in golang”. Or (worse), “We let each team decide the best technology for them”.
I don’t agree with that approach. There are benefits realised by using, say, golnag in the right context. But, they are dwarfed by some not-so-obvious problems.
A “bad tool” used well is better than a “good tool” used badly
In most cases, an organization has a deep understanding, experience, and tools in a specific technology.
Suppose a use case arises where that specific technology isn’t the best fit. There’s a better tool for that class of problems.
I contend that the existing tech stack would still perform better than an “optimal”, but less known, technology.
there are two sides to this argument –
1. The “bad” tool isn’t all that bad
Most tech stacks these days are extremely versatile.
It wouldn’t work as well as the the tools that are uniquely qualified for that context. But it can take you 80% of the way there. And, in 80% of cases – that’s good enough.
2. The “good” tool isn’t all that good
I mean – the tool probably is good. Your understanding of it, is not.
How to use it, best practices, common pitfalls, tooling, eco-system, and a million and one other things, that are only learned through experience.
You would not realise the same value from using that tool as someone who’s proficient in it.
Even worse – you’ll likely make some beginner mistakes.
And you’ll make them when they have the most impact – right at the beginning, when the system’s architecture is being established.
After a few months, you’ll gain enough experience to realise the mistakes you’ve made. But By then it’ll be much harder, or even infeasible, to fix.
There are some other issues with using a different technology than your main one:
Splitting the platform
Your organization has probably built (or bought) tooling around your main tech stack. They help your teams deliver faster, better, safer.
These tools will not be available for a new tech stack.
New tools, or ports of existing tools, will be required for the new tech stack.
The choice would be to either:
Invest the time and resources in (re)building (and maintaining) ports of the existing tools for that new technology, OR
Let the team using the new technology figure it out on their own.
In either case, this will result in a ton of extra work. Either for the platform / devX team (to build those tools), or for the product team (to solve boilerplate problems that have already been solved for the main tech stack).
Splitting the people
There’s a huge advantage to having a workforce that are all focused on a single tech stack. They can share knowledge, and even code, very easily. They can support each other. Onboarding one team member into a different team is much easier.
That means that there’s a lot of flexibility whereby people are able to move around teams. Maybe even on temporary basis, if one team is in need of extra support.
This is made much more difficult when there are different technologies involved.
Hiring may become more difficult also, if different teams have vastly different requirements.
What can I do if my main tech stack really is unsuitable for this one particular use case?
A former colleague of mine, in a ruby shop, had a need to develop a system that renders pixel-prefect PDFs.
They found that ruby lacked the tools and libraries to do that.
On the other hand – java has plenty of solid libraries for PDF rendering.
So they did something simple (but genius)- they ran their ruby system on the JVM.
This allowed them to use java libraries from within ruby code.
Literally the best of all worlds.
This is not unique to my colleague’s case, though.
You can run many languages on the JVM, and benefit from the rich java echosystem.
You can call performant C or Rust code from ruby, python, .NET, etc.
It’s possible to use the right tool at just the right place where it’s needed, without going ‘all-in’.
What can I do if I can’t get away with using my familiar tools?
Your existing tools probably cover 80% of all cases. But there will always be those 20% where you simply have to use “the right tool”. So let’s think about how to mitigate the above drawbacks of using an unfamiliar tool.
The most obvious option is to buy that familiarity: Bring in someone from the outside who’s already proficient with this tool. This can be in the form of permanent employees, or limited-time consultancy / contractors.
There’s a problem with any purchased capability, though.
They may be an expert in using the tool, but they are complete novices in using it in your specific context.
While they won’t make the beginner mistakes with the tool, as mentioned above, they’ll likely make beginner mistakes regarding your specific domain and context.
For this reason, I’d try and avoid using the consultancy model here. Firstly – they won’t have enough time to learn your domain. Secondly- your team won’t have enough time to learn the tool, to see where it doesn’t fit well with your domain.
Even hiring in full-time experts should be done with caution. They, too, will have no knowledge of your specific business context to begin with.
It may seem like a good idea to hire a whole team of experts, that can get up and running quickly. But consider pairing them with existing engineers with good understanding of your product and domain. The outside experts can level-up the existing engineers on the technology. The existing engineers can help the experts with context and domain knowledge.
It may seem slower to begin with, but can help avoid costly mistakes. And has the benefit of spreading the knowledge of the new tech stack, raising its bus factor.
Exceptions to the “rule”
Like any made-up-internet-advice, the position I outlined above is not a hard and fast rule.
There are cases where it would make complete sense to develop expertise in a technology that is not your core competency.
The most obvious example would be a new delivery method for your services: If you want to start serving your customers via a mobile app, for example. Then building the knowledge and tools around mobile development makes perfect sense.
Or creating an API / developer experience capability, if you want to start exposing your service via a developer API / SDK.
Or, if you’re a huge organization with thousands of developers. You’ll naturally have so many employees that have prior experience with different technologies. In that case you may find many of the issues outlined here do not apply.
Going all-in on a technical capability can have many benefits.
Richness of tools, flexibility of developers being able to move around different codebases, knowledge sharing, and more.
It makes sense to try and preserve that depth of expertise, and not to dilute it by bringing in more technologies and tools into the mix. Today, with every technology being so broad and multi-purpose, it’s easier to do than ever.
And remember – “select isn’t broken“: Many times I thought that some technology “cannot do” some task. Only to find out that it can, actually do that. It was just that I couldn’t.