We need this built NOW!

One of the biggest worldwide stories of the last few weeks has been the spread of the deadly coronavirus, which has infected tens of thousands and killed hundreds. In the wake of the panic around this illness, governments around the world have gone to drastic measures to restrict its spread. In the Chinese city of Wuhan, which is the epicenter of this outbreak, officials have quickly scrambled to quarantine and treat those exposed to the coronavirus. The most significant accomplishment of this effort is that they were able to build an entire hospital in the span of just ten days.

Think about that for a second: a brand new, multi-story, 1,000-bed hospital was designed and built in just a week and a half. It took longer than that for the body shop to repair my wife’s car after a minor fender bender. That the officials in Wuhan were able to construct such a facility in so little time, without much time to plan ahead, speaks to both the creativity and resourcefulness of the architects, engineers, and laborers involved in this project.

Ordinarily, building such a facility would require years: clearing the land, laying the foundation, building out the structure, installing utilities, and finishing out the interior each require many months of planning and labor, and this work largely happens consecutively, not concurrently.

So this begs the question: If we can build such a facility in days rather than years, why don’t we always do it that way?

The answer, of course, is that a hospital designed to be built in 10 days is constructed with speed as the only consideration. Treating as many patients as possible, as quickly as possible, is the only goal. As a result, other attributes – quality, durability, maintainability, and comfort – are all ignored to satisfy the only metric that really matters in such a project: time. The interior photos show a facility that looks more like the inside of a U-Haul truck than a hospital. Outside, the exposed ductwork and skeleton-like walls reveal a structure that is unlikely to withstand the rigors of use.

As a data guy, I see this same pattern when building data architectures. Everyone involved in a data project wants to have a perfectly working data pipeline, with validated metrics and user-tested access tools, delivered at or under budget, and ready for use tomorrow. The challenge comes in when deadlines (whether legitimate or invented on the fly) become the only priority, and architects and developers are asked to sacrifice all else to meet a target date. Sure, you can add a lot of hands to the project, like they did by engaging 7,000 people to build the Wuhan hospital. Throwing more people at the problem might get you a solution more quickly, but the same shortcuts to sacrifice quality, durability, and maintainability will need to be made.

When setting schedules with my clients, I sometimes have to work through this same thought exercise. Yes, we could technically build a data warehouse in a week, but it’s going to be lacking in what one would normally expect of such a structure: many important features would be left out, it’ll likely be difficult to maintain, and there would be no room for customization of any type. And, like the temporary Wuhan hospital, it would likely be gone or abandoned in 18 months.

Building something with speed as the only metric is occasionally necessary, but only under the most extreme of circumstances. Creating a data architecture that delivers accuracy, performance, functionality, and durability requires time – time to design, time to develop, time to test, and time to make revisions. Don’t sacrifice quality for the sake of speed.

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