How to Pick a Software Stack

Image by Bethany Drouin from Pixabay

When starting a new company or project, one of the most daunting phases is selecting a stack. There are lots of things that factor into the decision, and anyone who has done this before will attest that you will make some bad choices, and some of those will be nearly impossible to undo, especially if you’re successful. Some questions to consider:

What do you already know/love/hate?

When considering your options for some piece of the stack, it is totally reasonable to award points to things you know and love, and deduct points from things you know and hate. It is, however, not a good idea for this to be the principal factor. You should be able to defend your favorite choice against the others objectively and quantitatively, not solely on the basis of “it feels better” or “I know it already”.

Are you just trying to execute a business/goal or are you trying to explore and learn something new?

One of my two virtues of engineering is curiosity. Throughout your career, you should always be looking for opportunities to explore new ideas, new tools, new methods. If this is some moonlight or passion project, actively try to weight new and unfamiliar things higher. If this is a major venture with lots of other people’s time and money, there is just as much to be gained from leveraging your experience and going for flawless execution of things you’ve already worked out the kinks on.

If you have teammates, what do they know/love/hate?

This is a case where you should set the hierarchy aside and try to get everyone’s opinion. If you’re a senior engineer or architect you can bring experience to the table but don’t discount the novel approaches and backgrounds of your teammates, regardless of their experience. We so often get stuck in our ways, even after only a few years, and avoid novelty and diversity in the name of risk.

Are you going to need to hire/outsource the work?

If your plan involves getting dozens or hundreds of people on board in the near future, you’re going to want to lean to the more popular/vanilla options. Trying to hire 300 people in the next 12 months to work on your Erlang/Neo4J stack running on an Arduino cluster is going to be much harder than getting people to do Java/MySQL on AWS.

Are you building a prototype, an MVP, or a “real” version.

Deciding, and more importantly understanding what you’re building is a topic worth exploring on it’s own, but roughly speaking you’re building one of three things:

The Prototype

You just need to get something “working” to explain your idea or your solution. Unless you’re doing something truly revolutionary (p99.999 confidence spoiler alert: you aren’t), try to prototype your idea/business/product OR your technology, not both at the same time. Also really commit to throwing this away and starting over with a proper plan if there is promise. I’ve seen/had too many prototypes turn into projects that have a pile of technical debt before they even really start.

The MVP

I feel the MVP is overused, and too often is an excuse for a poor quality product or a starved team/budget. You obviously want to iterate, and if you want to call your first release an MVP for buzzword sake, go ahead, but don’t write throwaway code unless you’re committed to throwing it away (see prototype above). I’ve lost count of the number of companies and projects I’ve talked to that are rewriting their Rails or Django app because those seemed like easier paths to an MVP and “now we just need to scale”. That’s like saying “I’m going to get a job, but then I’m going to go and get a completely different job that actually pays my bills.”

If you are truly building an MVP, then your process for stack selection is no different than building the real version, it’s just prioritized more aggressively.

The “Real” Version

The first step here is to figure out, as best as you and your team can, what the successful (often AKA profitable) version of your app/system looks like. Do you need 100 users to break even? Do you need a million? If you need a million, don’t spend a single minute building something that only works for hundreds. If you need 100, don’t spend any time building it for 1 billion (unless you get that for no additional work, E.G. something like Amazon S3).

What features are truly required to hit that goal? Make sure there is a place for them in your architecture even if you don’t plan to build them right away. Do you need support and sales teams to be successful? Make sure you’re putting hooks in for the tools they will need (E.G. CRM, ticketing, admin consoles).

What can you get “for free”?

Everything has a cost, in terms of time, money, people, etc. but those costs are not always the same across companies and projects. Your team’s experience can discount learning curves, your company may already have investments or licenses for things. Never use something just because it’s free, but make sure that is a part of your decision.

If you’re at a larger organization with a number of teams, consider if there is a team supporting certain aspects of what you might use. If there is a logging system that is in place and ready to go and has its own support, it’s should be a hard sell to build or buy or set up a new one just because of a few features. Often that team will even build what you need!

What are your competitors using?

Competitive analysis can be difficult, most software companies don’t go too deep on what they are using for any given situation, but that information can play a large part in your decision. If you find a conference talk where they talk about what they tried and had good or bad results from, you’ve possibly just saved yourself a lot of pain. You will often just get a lot of good ideas (“I never considered using X to do Y”), or pointers to things you’ve never heard of.

You might also find some competitive advantage. If they are using something you know is difficult to change or won’t scale well, make sure yours can beat them in those aspects. By the time they realize you’re about to pass them it might be too late for them to adjust.

What will fail first?

As you’re building your stack, know where the weak points are, and don’t be shy about circulating that information. If you can’t get to your target latency because some component will use 90% of that budget, try to find a replacement early rather than assuming you can plug something else in later. You should be confident that all of your core components can hit your targets, and if you aren’t sure, validate that now. You’ll find that the interconnected nature of systems will often lead you to replacing more than one piece at a time, which only makes it less like you’ll be able to do it, and more likely to fail.

What else?

Picking a stack is harder, and takes more time, than most people realize. I’m sure there are other things to consider and I’ve love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments.