Lessons from building microservices | part 1: the industry’s influence

I started learning about microservices and seeing momentum the architectural pattern around 2015. A number of developers I worked with at Grovo were enthusiastic about the idea as a solution to a number of scaling issues we were facing. The more I looked around, the more I saw developers across the industry purporting microservices as the new, modern architectural pattern. For some companies, this was natural evolution in their systems architecture, but for many companies, especially smaller startups, the push towards microservices seemed driven by the idea that, despite the cost and difficulties, this was going to be the status quo for leading tech companies and that was the direction they should be headed in. I was on the “smaller startup” side of the industry and, from my vantage point, this perspective didn’t seem to be based on any sort of real engineering analysis but more-so aligning with what was being talked about in the industry, adopting what larger companies (e.g. Netflix) were doing, and a belief that microservices were a silver bullet to scaling issues. Looking back, none of this is too surprising. Following in the footsteps of Big Tech, even when your business is operating at a different scale and your tech problems look very different, or jumping on the hype train for the latest technology (e.g. the “just-got-back-from-a-conference” effect), continues to be prevalent in the industry.

For VC-backed startups, it’s also worth looking at the state of the market around 2014-2015. Venture capital funding in tech shot up along with the size of the deals. Closing a VC round and being pushed to grow was also not out of the ordinary. I’ll hand-wave a bit here, but I think this also led to larger engineering teams, a corresponding overconfidence in what could be tackled, and an underestimation of the difficulties of working within and maintaining a topologically complex architecture.

The lesson in all this is to look at and understand industry dynamics relative to your company and your role. Software isn’t made in a vacuum and the zeitgeist of the industry is a key factor in how engineering decisions are made and what solutions manifest.

Finally, this may all sound cynical and, in terms of the pattern itself, it sort of is. Working on microservices led me to view them as an optimization and not a general pattern for application development. However, building with microservices was also a powerful forcing function to really look at and tackle inefficiencies in infrastructure, deployments, and code structure. In addition, the company-level initiative to push towards microservices highlighted the dynamics by which decisions are made and driven, from industry buzz to company leaders to individual engineers. What I learned from all of this improved my technical work in areas beyond microservices and that’s what I hope to really highlight in this and future posts.