Breakneck Speed vs. Full Prudent Speed in Engineering.

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Ships and Speed

A long time ago, I read about shipping and the concepts of full prudent speed and breakneck speed.

If you run your ship at a prudent speed, everything is under control. You don’t endanger anyone. You’ll deliver your goods, and everything will be fine.

But sometimes, things must be delivered faster. Much, much faster. This was often the case in the early days of the East India Company. Then, the captain of the ship would order everyone to operate at breakneck speed, as fast as possible, with potential risks such as men going overboard or, in the worst-case scenario, losing the whole ship.

From Ships to Bits and Bytes

As Interim CTO I am gifted working with many different types of organizations and engineering departments. And I’ve experienced the concepts of breakneck speed and full prudent speed there as well.

Especially in startups, you often see the entire engineering team operating at breakneck speed. Plans change frequently. There’s uncertainty. Tech debt accrues on a massive scale. People leaving the company. High pace. Lot of waste.

In contrast, other engineering departments operate at a prudent speed. Everyone’s focused. Plans and roadmaps exist and don’t change frequently. Teams have time to fix bugs and write good tests, which supercharge stability and delivery. Processes are diligently improved and perfected over time.

Your Choice: Breakneck Speed or Prudent Speed

In the end, it’s your choice at which speed you operate your department.

Sometimes, it’s necessary to operate at breakneck speed. This is especially true for startups. But if you do this for too long, your engineering department will fall apart.

Most of the time, your engineers should operate at a prudent speed, delivering excellent work with the highest quality and delighting customers.

One Last Word

I obtained this information from a book I read a long time ago, but I can’t remember which one. So, I can’t even prove that the concepts of breakneck speed vs. full prudent speed are actually true. If you have any pointers regarding the origins of this story, please let me know!

I just re-read Tom DeMarco’s excellent book “Slack”. And THIS was the book I could not remember when writing my article. The book Slack features “Chapter 31: Working at Breakneck Speed” which was the original inspiration for this article I think. All kudos go to Tom DeMarco. Don’t miss to read his book Slack. It’s very well worth your time!