The Applebee's of Software Development

Series: tangential October 16, 2011

“The Applebee’s of Software Development” is the first week’s prompt for the SEP Blog Battle. The idea was to pick a title and have everyone write their own post about it - leaving the interpretation up to each writer.

Matt Terry wrote about how using engineers as waiters means you’re doing it wrong. Todd Trimble went in a different direction - focusing on striving to be good neighborhood developers. And I’m going to steer my post a yet another direction.

Have you ever looked at the Applebee’s menu? It’s one of those laminated 7-page deals that always seem to hide the list of side dishes and comes with an insert for the monthly specials. There are probably 50+ different entrees on the menu - a consequence of trying to have something for everyone.

The huge menu trades breadth for depth and variety for quality. I don’t think anyone is going to argue that an Applebee’s steak is on par with anything from an upscale steakhouse. Or that the Sizzling Fajita can hold up to the small, family-run Mexican place down the street. But you CAN get a side of ribs with your ravioli!

In the world of software, being a jack-of-all-trades does make business sense because consulting is a game of numbers. If your shop can do desktop, web, mobile and embedded work, your opportunity pool is larger and you can bid for (and hopefully win) more contracts.

You also diversity your portfolio, so to speak. If the demand for desktop apps dries up, you don’t have to close up shop or start laying off engineers.

But you can never be truly great. You will never be a leader in mobile development if it is only 20% of your business. Appleebee’s is never going to win a Michelin Star.

You shouldn’t go into the office on Monday and demand that your company changes their identity and business plan. But when you start thinking about what skills and technologies you want to learn or improve, stop and figure out what you want the final outcome to be.

Do you want to be a generalist like the 2000 location, billion dollar Applebee’s empire, or a specialist like Gordon Ramsey’s Three Michelin Star French restaurant?

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