Three Lessons from the Venetian Arsenal for Product Management and MicroServices Architecture
After reading 25 articles about the trade-offs of Microservices Architecture (I am now a newbie SaaS PM), I felt the need to decompress with some art and history. So it was a pleasant surprise to find Microservices (under a different name) hiding in medieval Venice.
Venice, Italy, has always held a special romance in my heart. It was founded in the early 5th century as a colony for refugees fleeing the destruction of Rome at the hands of the barbarians. Being nothing more than a swamp that is barely one meter above sea level, Venice was a worthless wasteland for anyone but the most destitute and desperate. However, time would prove Venice as a shinning example of humanity’s ability to create abundance from what appears to be worthless. The Venetians conquered the mosquito ridden swamps and raised a city solidly founded in the sea. They became master fishermen, ship builders, merchants and world connectors (that’s not the SaaS connection — it’s coming). Venice went on to become the seat of wealth and influence in the world for over a millennium and played a key role in lifting Europe out of the dark ages.
As I read more about the Venetians, I realized they also laid the conceptual foundations for mass production that enabled much of the 20th century (Ford Model-T or any other mass produced product from airplanes to iPhones). They may also have laid the foundations for the software development patterns that are enabling the 21st century.
The Venetian Arsenal was at the heart of Venice’s rise and influence. Some believe it was built in the 8th century to defend the fledgling city from pirates. But most historians date its construction in the current form to 1104 AD when trade became the priorities for the Venetian state.
Unlike other shipyards that took months to build and launch a ship, the Venetian Arsenal was famous for being able to launch one fully kitted ship per day. The Venetians were also unique for being able to maintain high speed, scale and innovation. The Arsenal’s design and concepts continue to inspire visionaries well into the 21st century.
The architects of the Arsenal seemed to understand three universal truths about product development and innovation.
1. Speed, Quality and Cost are not competing, zero-sum requirements : Anyone who says ‘Speed, quality, cost — pick two’ has never delivered anything differentiated. Imagine the state of the world if Henry Ford or Thomas Edison fell for this fallacy! Innovation, differentiation, and class leading capabilities emerge from challenging the intellectual indolence of ‘pick two’. In fact, it’s been documented that products developed in a continuous delivery environment had ~40% lower development cost, and 50% lower defect rates. Today’s leading software platforms are updating and improving their production releases in real-time while maintaining six-sigma up-time. The speed of production at the Arsenal enabled rapid learning, experimentation and closed-loop corrective actions to create a virtuous cycle.
2. Platform innovation begets product innovation: Product innovation is impossible without fresh thinking in platform and process innovation. To quote Jesus — it’s not possible to pour new wine into old wineskin. For example, the Venetian Arsenal architects had the insight to shift from the Roman practice of hull-first ship designs to the frame-first design paradigm. While this innovation allowed the Venetians to create ships with far less timber (a product benefit), it also yielded a platform benefit which allowed the hull to be moved along an assembly line. This resulted in minimizing worker movement which in-turn resulted in fewer errors, greater consistency and quicker learning. In fact, it’s hard to say which came first, the product design or the process design — it’s likely that they emerged together. When it comes to leading innovation, it’s impossible to innovate the ‘what’ without innovating on the ‘how’.
3. Shared context, culture and vertical integration are likely to win out: Building shared context, culture and established norms is not an optional nicety — it is fundamental to winning. The Arsenal founders envisioned and designed it to be dynamic, living, and learning entity that was laser focused on winning wars, defending trade routes and protecting the interests of the state. Designing such a platform requires an end-to-end planning mindset that begins with the people doing the work and establishing a clear ‘why’. The 16,000 arsenalotti (expert craftsmen) lived in close quarters and shared special standing in society — their identities were moored to their vocation. While Zero coupling and API first design practices are nice intellectual constructs, systems end up being coupled through people, incentives and other factors. A prescient architect must consider how to manage these inadvertent couplings. In the case of the Arsenal, the architects chose to manage this with a strong culture, vertical integration and a reward system that set the arsenalotti apart from the general population.
The navy and merchant ships constructed in the Venetian Arsenal laid the foundation for a vibrant Mediterranean economy through the late middle-age up to Napoleon’s conquest in 1897 (almost 1000 years!). Today, distributed, loosely coupled, continuously delivered SW based on Microservices is solving big problems and creating new wealth. In fact, according to the Wikipedia entry, the term “Microservices” was first used at a SW engineering workshop in Venice in 2011 — the Venetian magic is alive and kicking in our present day!
PS : Check out The Venetian Arsenal: The History and Legacy of the Weapons Industry that Made Venice the Mediterranean’s Strongest Naval Power for details on the collaboration and planning that went into the Arsenal’s operation.