"Shipping beats perfection" explained

When we sat down to write Khan Academy’s company values in 2010, “shipping beats perfection” flew out of Sal’s mouth before our butts hit the chairs.

It’s almost 3 years later. I have one-on-ones with teammates new and old who wanna talk more about what “shipping beats perfection” means. When outsiders happen across our development principles, “shipping beats perfection” becomes a lightning rod for anything from compliments and respect to accusations and fury. Our internal chat bot, the culture cow, drops “shipping beats perfection” as occasional chat room reminders (between MOOs).

At some point along the way when the phrase passed between my ears for the NNth time, my brain started believing it was invented by Google or Facebook (nope, that’s “move fast, break things”) or some other big boy with so much success that small fish like us just naturally start repeating whatever they say.

But now that I sit down to explain it, I’m googling for "shipping beats perfection" -khan and not finding much. And while I love its simplicity, “shipping beats perfection” contains subtlety in need of explanation.

We’re willing to be embarrassed about what we haven’t done…

We’re willing to be embarrassed about the things we haven’t done yet. Did you know our mobile app only offers video viewing, not the rest of our interactive platform? Did you know we don’t yet completely cover loops in our programming tutorials and challenges? Did you know we don’t have fully immersive simulations for teaching students physics?

Well, that’s all true, and quite embarrassing…for now. Would we go back in time to delay our mobile app’s launch until we figured out how to support the entire Khan Academy platform in an app? Absolutely not. Would we go back and undo the launch of Khan Academy programming because it doesn’t yet contain all of the content it really needs to? Absolutely not.

Is this the right philosophy for all products? Absolutely not. But educational content is so badly needed right now, and students are so hungry, that it’d be vain of us to think satisfying our own hunger for perfection is worth more than students’ needs. We’ll get to the complete mobile app. We’ll get to better coverage of computer programming content. Maybe we’ll even get to a fully immersive physics simulation. One day.

…but not willing to be embarrassed about what we have done.

"Shipping beats perfection" doesn’t mean we should ship something we’re embarrassed of. Far from it. Would we ever put out physics content that felt crappy or didn’t help students learn? Absolutely not. Would we ever push out a mobile app with a frustrating video viewing experience? Absolutely not.

That would be embarrassment over what we have built. We don’t ship that.

I’m not taking advice from anybody who says ‘shipping beats perfection’…makes no sense anyway you slice it…stability, cache issues, etc.

Concerned Redditor

Concerned Redditor, you need not worry your pretty little karma-filled head. We work hard for performance and stability, and, well, I don’t even know why I’m defending us against this statement because “shipping beats perfection” doesn’t in any way mean “ship crappy code.”

Wait, what? “Shipping beats perfection” can play nice w/ high code quality?

We code review literally every change and demand clear, understandable code. We docstring almost everything. Unit tests are popping up everywhere. If a code reviewer is confused by anything, she can simply say, “I’m having trouble understanding this part,” and it’s on the coder’s head to fix their code or documentation so things are clearer for future readers.

Perfection? Far from it. We can only afford this level of quality and still ship like crazy because we’re willing to be embarrassed about plenty of other things we haven’t gotten to yet.

Bring out the strawman

Try this on for size.

You’re assigned the task of adding a brand new data report for teachers who need to know more about what their students have learned. No doubt in your mind, the report is going to be huge for them. Plus, you just did a design sprint, so you think you know exactly what needs building and how long it should take.

You crack your knuckles and wryly smile as you’re about to fire up your editor and do what you do best.

You crack open javascript/coach-reports/reports.js and can’t believe what you see. What is all this old cruft? Your new report would be soooooo much easier if the data was just bundled up a bit differently. Plus the logic for these other reports is real messy. If you take a couple weeks right now, you could clean things up, and then knocking out your new report will be a breeze a coupl’a days later.

What’s the right move here? Refactor everything and fix it, even though you’ll lose a couple weeks at first? Curse crappy code like a sailor and just hack the new report right on top?

Spoiler alert: we don’t have enough information to answer. How badly do teachers need this? When? Is the “cruft” a bunch of edge cases that really do matter and shouldn’t be thrown away willy-nilly? Is it really old code genuinely in need of replacement?

Every coder faces this demon. The good ones take a step back, ask the above questions, and choose appropriately for each situation. The bad ones dogmatically believe “any code I’m around must be perfect” or, equally as bad, “just ship it.”

Leave it better

You won’t always know the answer, so here’s something for your toolbelt: “leave it better.” Can you liberally add TODOs around the old code, explaining what you will do to fix the situation soon, write your new code such that it demonstrates the new pattern you proudly suggest, and at the same time solve the pressing problem for teachers?.

If so, you left it better. You didn’t delay teachers’ needs for two weeks due to a refactor. You didn’t write lots of new code that you’re embarrassed of. Sure, you may need one messy hack to link your new pattern to the old code. That’s ok, you did so for a reason — for learners — and you added a helpful TODO and a Trello card just to be sure you’ll get back to it. Sure, you’re embarrassed that you didn’t do the full refactor yet. That’s ok, it’s the type of embarrassment — we just haven’t done the work yet — that we’re ok with.

If you’re the type who can’t “just” leave it better but must make code perfect, then you’re satisfying your own needs instead of learners’. You’re violating “shipping beats perfection.”

A story to end on

We’ve seen videos of Spanish-speaking students in South America using Khan Academy to learn math. If a UX guru walked into one of these classrooms in Peru and sat down next to a student, here’s what they’d report back:

  1. Spanish-speaking student goes to www.khanacademy.org.
  2. Student sees a bunch of text in English but clicks around enough to find the math problem she’s trying to practice.
  3. Student selects all of the text in the math problem, then opens another tab, goes to Google translate, pastes the text in, and reads the Spanish translation of the math problem.
  4. Student returns to the tab w/ Khan Academy open, writes her answer, gets the problem right.
  5. Student, seemingly unaware of the usability disaster they’ve just been tortured by, turns to UX guru and smiles blissfully, thrilled by her success.

And then at this point the UX guru’s head would a-splode.

We’ve seen videos of this happening (minus head a-splosion). Many of us have felt deep embarrassment in the past over our lack of translated versions of Khan Academy. But shipping beats perfection. For a long time we weren’t ready to tackle translations. We had to swallow our embarrassment and move forward with the English platform.

So should we be satisfied? Absolutely not. In about a week, a fully internationalized Spanish version of Khan Academy will be out of alpha. Will it be perfect? Far from it. Will 100% of our content translated? Absolutely not. Is our internationalization code free of TODOs and the occasional messy hack? Absolutely not.

Will our internationalization work leave our students, our product, our code quality, and hopefully our world in a better place than before? Absolutely.

You only have to watch one Spanish-speaking student joyfully use an English-only math resource to realize that high code quality and perfect UIs don’t matter for their own sake. They matter when they make a difference for learners. So we leave things better every day, are willing to be embarrassed about what we haven’t done, take pride in what we have, and ship great educational content to everybody as fast as we can.

Shipping beats perfection.

9/9/13 — 9:25am Permalink
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    Lead Developer, Ben Kamens explains one of the core values at Khan Academy.
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