How Much Infrastructure Do You Need to Build to Get Where You’re Going?

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You can work without infrastructure. Some people compare it to an acrobat working without a net, but it’s more like an acrobat working without the rings, high wires and other apparati that makes an act more interesting. An acrobat can still do plenty of flips and other tricks without the tools of her trade, but avoiding audience yawns is significantly harder.

The same goes with practically any business. I’m always surprised by what people can do with their bare hands and an awful lot of time. But the moment you give someone the right tools, everything’s easier, quality’s higher and she may even wind up with some spare time. Infrastructure, whether it’s the customer relationship software that makes it easier for you to sell your products or the note-taking app that manages all the little details of your life, improves your ability to get good work done.

It’s hard to argue against infrastructure. But actually getting the right infrastructure isn’t always as simple as making a trip to the corner store.

Custom Infrastructure Versus Off-The-Shelf

One of my problems with finding the right infrastructure is that I can never find exactly what I want — a content management system doesn’t quite match the vision I have or a survey tool doesn’t have enough flexibility in the types of answers it accepts. I get caught up in tweaking a tool (or even building an entirely new tool) so that I can have exactly what I believe I need. I’m not exactly the best at working within the constraints of a system.

It’s a bit of a trap, though: building your own infrastructure can take a lot of the time that you might otherwise invest in actually going out and getting started on what you want to accomplish. Sure, you may be able to turn around and sell that infrastructure to someone else, provided it isn’t too customized or it isn’t the secret sauce that sets you apart from the competition. That route has built plenty of fortunes — think about the oil booms. The people who are guaranteed to turn a major profit when everyone is out looking for oil are the guys selling the drilling equipment. Infrastructure is almost always a good bet.

But it can also slow you down if you’ve got a great idea that you need to get to market. You can distract yourself with perfecting the infrastructure when you should really be pushing full speed ahead, even if you have put together a patchwork approach to managing the whole thing until you get it to market. On the other hand, there are projects that you may pursue that the infrastructure just doesn’t exist for yet. If you can’t buy an off-the-shelf solution and cobbling together existing components won’t get you where you need to be, you have to find a way to balance that problem against actually accomplishing what you’ve set out to do.

How Much Infrastructure Do You Really Need?

It can be tempting to keep looking for the best tools. You can get bogged down in the details and never actually getting around to building the business you’ve planned all this infrastructure for. It’s a dangerous pit to fall into, another temptation that can drag you down.

I get bored with my infrastructure, which may seem like an odd thing to say. But I am excessively fond of playing with new tools: some people collect stamps, while I collect web apps. If I let myself, I could spend all day every day trying out new combinations of tools, without making any progress on the projects that I actually consider important. I’m not the only one, either, at least among the types of people who haunt productivity blogs. The only option in a situation like this is to draw a line in the sand for yourself. You can tweak and test and tinker to a certain point, but no further.

It doesn’t seem like a bad thing in the moment, though. I cannot begin to describe how much fun I get from tinkering with my workflow or building a custom tool. It’s a fast way to lose hours that I meant to spend elsewhere, but it’s easy to justify with the idea that if I can just find the perfect workflow, all of my work will do itself and I can kick back.

But I’ve had to find a stopping point in that eternal search for the perfect approach to work and — if you want to actually get any of your work done, you’ll need to as well. Make it clear to yourself under what circumstances you’ll return to the search: since I tend to write about workflows and related topics fairly regularly, I’ve divided the question into when can I try out a new gadget or app and when can I make major changes to how I work. Respectively, those times are when I can line up a place to publish a review in advance and no more than once a year.

Revisit Your Infrastructure Reasonably Regularly

Google recently announced that Google Reader will be shuttered later this year. As it happens, Google Reader has been a major component of my workflow for years. I have obsessively created an organizational system of all sorts of RSS feeds. I have layers of plugins that automatically act on the items I star and tag. I even have a carefully considered guiding document on what is worthy to make it into the one folder I read religiously every day. The end of Google Reader is going to leave a major hole in my infrastructure.

That’s given me a reason to start going through the many other RSS readers currently on the market. I’m pretty upset about the end of Google Reader, but I’m having some fun trying out all the different alternatives that have evolved since I last really investigated RSS readers. I’d considered the matter a solved problem and haven’t revisited it in years because I knew it was something of a rabbit’s hole I could fall down.

I try to keep from tinkering unless there’s a particular problem with my existing set up. Optimizing the tools I use isn’t enough of a problem to spark an investigation into what other options are out there (unless it’s been a really rough week and I need some cheering up). It seems like waiting until something goes wrong could be dangerous — after all, you could wind up using less advanced tools than the competition. But considering how often web apps disappear or an upgrade removes a feature that I rely on, I’m pretty comfortable with the speed at which I try out new options.

Infrastructure is a Learning Experience

I do make a point of learning about new options long before I try them out, though. I want to have a more limited field of possibilities before I dive into trying out a bunch of things.

But it’s worth going even further when learning about infrastructure at an even deeper level. After all, if you know what makes your tools tick, you may be able to tweak them yourself. There are different layers to this sort of learning: just going a bit deeper than the typical user’s experience in a given piece of software can be great — just being able to install a plugin on top of a given piece of software will put you ahead of the game.

I’m becoming a bigger proponent of learning how to hack on existing software, even if you’re not prepared to devote yourself to learning all about a given programming language. Just knowing a little bit about what is possible and what isn’t can make it easier to find someone already doing all the hard parts — or to gear up to building your own infrastructure yourself. I won’t declare that everyone under the sun needs to learn how to code, design, write or otherwise create, but the more of these skills you have, the more infrastructure you can build or adapt to your own needs.

After all, isn’t having the best possible set of tools the ideal? That we have the right infrastructure to speed up everything that we want to do?

Image by Flickr user Pinguino K

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