The Pit of Success

This is a repost of Brad Abram’s article from 10/2/2003. This article was actually the thing that got me blogging. The original posting has gone through many content ports and is now barely legible. [Note: it isn’t really the original posting but merely the latest port of the original posting]

By request, here’s a reconstituted version. It’s about my talk so I guess it’s ok for me to post it.

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.
Rico Mariani, MS Research MindSwap, Oct 2003.
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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 working set) 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 perf 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 at old link broken.

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.

[See also The Pit of Success For Organizations]