Beware the feedback loop

· 3 min read

I know, I know. Feedback loops rock the stage. But.

Not long ago we agreed that software development is just about feedback loops. Not sure if we actually agreed on that, though, but nevermind.

Turns out, feedback loops are harder than expected.

Feedback loops come with an overhead

Let’s say you want to develop a new feature.

You could access your production server by SSH. Change a few lines here and there using vim. Press an undetermined number of random keys until you’re able to save the file and quit. See your changes live.


Feels like a hacker.

On the other hand, you could develop the feature locally while pair programming. And do so while running a test suite to check that you didn’t fuck up the whole thing, of course. Finally, you could set up a PR for your teammates to review your changes. After that, you’d solve merge conflicts, merge the PR and trigger the CI pipeline that would get your code into production safely after a moderate-to-large amount of time.

Which one of the scenarios outlined above feels cheaper?

However, which one of them would you rather work with?

Scenario #2 is expensive. It is, let’s face it. Period. Learning how to pair program. Learning how to test. Running those tests. Defining a PR review strategy. Setting up the CI pipeline.

All of these tools provide useful feedback loops. Sure, they are useful, but let’s face it: feedback loops come with an overhead.

Feedback loops come with a challenge

We like feedback loops. They are cool. How would you know you are building the right thing right otherwise?

We’re not here to discuss that.

They are the cool kid in town because they give us feedback.

And that’s the challenge. Ahh, my friend, feedback is hard.

Well, getting feedback is quite easy, I’d say. I mean, you might have a failing test, a retrospective that felt wrong, a disappointed stakeholder after reviewing the sprint increment. That’s feedback.

The hard part, though, is to challenge the status quo once you get that feedback and act accordingly.

Do you really change your upcoming goals given an unexpected outcome from a user research report?

Do you really redesign that piece of code that is hard to test, or that broke due to an apparently unrelated test suite?

Do you really challenge your team structure and communication processes if you find a bottleneck during a team retrospective?

Do you really develop software to answer business questions, and then build a new software increment based on the obtained answer?

Having feedback loops without the “feedback” part is just running in circles. This sentence is so cool it couldn’t come from me. Props to Gojko Adzic.

And running in circles is quite a pointless, expensive idea.