August 25, 2011

Relentless Quality

If there’s one thing I’ll remember about Alex Mahernia, it’s footer spacing. Here we are at 10pm in the office and we’d be trying to launch a site. The only thing left is an A-OK from the creative director. And without fail, he’d yell at me to come into his office and point at his screen. “The footer spacing is too big on this page.” So I’d go back to battle the CSS until every single page on the site had consistent footer spacing in every browser.

Motherfucking footer spacing.

And what did it matter? Are our clients really going to lose customers because there’s an extra 10 pixels of footer spacing in IE6 on one of the pages? Is the client going to refuse payment because of these pixels? HOW MUCH BLOOD ARE THESE PIXELS WORTH?

But it was never about the footer spacing. It was about quality. It was about cultivating a culture of relentless quality in everything we produced.

Quality versus the Ego

Every time Alex called me into his office and showed me a page with an extra 7 pixels of spacing my blood pressure went through the roof. I took it as a personal insult. But he wasn’t insulting me. It was about producing a quality product.

Quality has no room for egos. Other people will have better solutions. You are going to miss things. You are going to break things. You are going to make mistakes. And people are going to point it out.

And I think it’s okay to get upset. Take that feeling and turn it inwards. Vow to make things better. Make sure you’re always producing the best quality product you can.

Move fast and break things

If you take a look at any of Facebook’s recruiting marketing, you’ll see a phrase repeated over and over:

Move fast and break things

And with good reason — the idea it embodies is fantastic. Unfortunately I see a lot of people interpreting this quote as something like this:

It reminds me of another misinterpretation that’s always bugged me:

Quality isn’t something to be sacrificed. Move fast and break things, then move fast and fix it. Ship early, ship often, sacrificing features, never quality.

Embrace change. Ship. Never cut corners.

Quality is contagious

Which reminds me of the broken windows theory:

Monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition may prevent further vandalism as well as an escalation into more serious crime.

Broken windows are the reason most large software projects suck to work on. A little technical debt here, a few shortcuts there, and pretty soon you’ve got a codebase so full of broken windows that no one even cares if they throw another pile of broken glass on the heap.

But just as broken windows are contagious, so is a dedication to quality. Carve out a little piece of a messy codebase and clean it up. Sharpen the edges, polish the surface and make it shine.

The caveat here is that you can’t half-ass quality. Dedication to “semi-quality” isn’t dedication at all. High-end design coupled with mediocre engineering can only produce a mediocre result.

And I don’t know about you, but I don’t dream of building mediocre. I dream of building the best. So I’m thankful to Alex for instilling this idea of relentless quality in me, even if I still have footer spacing related nightmares from time to time.

If you'd like to keep in touch, I tweet @kneath on Twitter. You're also welcome to send a polite email to I don't always get the chance to respond, but email is always the best way to get in touch.

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