Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

The sunk cost fallacy

with 4 comments

I recently came across David McRaney’s post about the sunk cost fallacy with reference to Farmville, a fallacy that is very applicable to software.

David starts off with the following statements which describe the fallacy pretty well:

The Misconception: You make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments and experiences.

The Truth: Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.

I think this is very true in a lot of IT organisations in particular when they’ve made a big investment on some sort of middleware, usually an ESB.

These can often cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of £’s so the person who authorised the purchase is likely to push very hard for it to be used because if it’s not then their decision looks very foolish.

The problem is that in a lot of cases using an ESB doesn’t simplify the system being built – it makes it much more complicated.

ESB’s are typically difficult to test against, difficult to setup on a continuous integration server and generally make the life of people who have to use them hell.

The sunk cost fallacy applies here because the organisation feels the pain of the initial purchase and doesn’t want to write that off even if it would make life easier for them from now onwards.

I even have my own smaller example from something I’ve been working on over the weekend.

I wanted to try moving this blog from WordPress to Jekyll and I came across octopress which simplifies the process by providing ready made style sheets and layouts.

I’ve got it mostly working but I couldn’t work out how to create pages which showed the posts in certain categories or for a specific month.

From what I can tell you can get that functionality by implementing a plugin but unfortunately plugins were only added to Jekyll from version 0.6 and octopress relies on henrik-jekyll version 0.5.

I’ve spent about a day and a half getting the blog to its current state so I’m pretty reluctant to write off that time and scrap the octopress idea.

Unfortunately that may not be possible if I want to get all the functionality of wordpress.

I’m not sure exactly when we should take the sunk cost and when we should write it off but being aware of it is at least a step in the right direction.

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Written by Mark Needham

April 17th, 2011 at 12:05 pm

  • sud

    I was debating between Jekyll and WordPress and was leaning towards wordpress from a management standpoint. Could you elaborate why Jekyll over WordPress for you.

  • Hey,

    Actually there isn’t really a good reason for me to do it.

    I was originally having a problem getting my RSS feed to generate on wordpress and having spent a couple of hours failing to work that out I thought I might just try and convert the blog to jekyll instead.

    Having played with it for a couple of days I think the idea is neat but it takes ages to re-create the site from scratch each time. I did come across a version where that had been fixed but it’s not in the normal gem.

    Management wise I think wordpress is much better – you can either manage the blog from the web interface or by using Mars Edit which is what I do.

    I guess if you don’t want to install a tool like that on your machine and want to manage everything as text files in Vim/Emacs then Jekyll might be a good choice.

    Cheers, Mark

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