When Dogfooding Fails

For over 20 years we’ve been eating our own dog food in the software industry and it’s not working. For the uninitiated dogfooding means to actually use the product you’re developing. It started out as a radical idea at Microsoft and spread as a way to get developers to experience their customer’s pain. On the surface it was a very good idea–especially for an aging corporate culture divorced from its users. When I interviewed with Microsoft in 1995 I was told that all their engineers we’re given low-end 386 PCs. These PCs ran Windows 95 so slowly that the MS developers were incentivized to improve Windows’ performance to ease their own suffering. I don’t know about you, but I find that Windows is still pretty slow even in 2011 running on a really fast multicore PC. Clearly all this dogfooding is not helping.

So I’d like to frame an argument against dogfooding and in favor of something else: Plagiarism.

My argument goes like this:

  1. Dogfooding doesn’t work, or at least it’s not sufficient, because it’s not a good predictor of software success. Some software that is dogfooded is very successful. Most software that is dogfooded fails. (Most software fails and most software is dogfooded therefore dogfooding fails.)
  2. Dogfooding is really bad because it give you a false sense of doing something to improve your product: “It’s OK, I know our software is terrible but we’re forcing our employees to dogfood it and out of shear frustration they will make things better! Everyone go back to sleep…”
  3. Dogfooding reinforces bad product design. Human beings are highly adaptable (and last time I looked software devs are still considered human). We get used to things, especially in a culture where company pride and team spirit are valued (e.g. groupthink). Over time poor performance becomes typical performance. It starts to feel natural. Thus slow loading Windows operating systems become the gold standard for thousands of loyal Microsoft employees and customers. Instead of fixing the software we are fixed by it.

I believe that the urge to Dogfood is an emergent strategy of mature tech companies that want to rejuvenate their software development process. Management starts talking about Dogfooding when they realize the spark of creativity has gone out and they want to reignite it.

One of the reasons Dogfooding fails is that you never eat your own dog food in the beginning: The dog food didn’t exist yet. You had to get your inspiration from outside the company. Microsoft Windows was not the first OS with a graphical mouse-driven shell. At some point the Windows devs must have looked at the Apple Lisa and Macintosh computers for inspiration. And the Apple devs looked at the Xerox Star. And the Xerox devs drew their inspiration from the physical world: The first GUI desktop was modeled on an actual physical desktop. No dog food there.

So rather than dogfooding we should talking about plagiarism. If you want to make a great software product eat another a great software product and make it taste better–don’t eat yucky dog food.

Microsoft should force their devs to use the fastest computers running the best operating systems with really cool applications. I think they must have bought some MacBook Airs, installed Ubuntu and Spotify because Windows 8 looks pretty awesome 🙂

3 replies on “When Dogfooding Fails”

  1. On G+ you tell me to go ahead and soil the blog pages? Be careful what you wish for.

    Being creative means not limiting oneself to a particular dogma.

    If you have read Mote in God’s Eye then you will know what I mean by Crazy Eddie testing. Users always do the unexpected, so should developers as well as testers.

    Hackers make an art out of (mis)using tools in ways they were not intended. Dog food can also be used pointing bricks, catching catfish, and is a passable (if somewhat odoriferous) library paste in a pinch.

    All institutionalized methods become stale if they become so routine that people forget to think for themselves.

    What you call “plagiarism” is really a form stepwise refinement. Taking existing ideas, combining them together and/or giving them a new twist is an old, old, recipe for success.

    So keep thinking, you’re getting warm!

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