In 2014 Facebook changed its motto for developers from “move fast and break things” to “move fast with stable infrastructure”. The new motto isn’t nearly as catchy. When we changed it I also felt it wasn’t nearly as meaningful. But I was wrong.

When we were developing Messenger in early 2011 it wasn’t uncommon for the app to crash or freeze. The product team didn’t worry too much about that because it was in our control to fix bugs like that. What the product team worried about was when a message we sent randomly failed to deliver. That kind of error might be hard to see on a dashboard but would subtly destroy people’s confidence in our service. If a message got dropped inexplicably while we were testing we would stop feature development and focus on the infrastructure until we understood why.

That story has two important lessons.

Consistency and reliability stem from stability. McDonalds doesn’t sell the most hamburgers because they are the best. They sell the most hamburgers because they are the most reliable. In exchange for higher certainty outcomes people are willing to reduce their expectations. Making a good enough burger isn’t that hard. But doing it consistently is and requires an impressive amount of infrastructure to achieve.

High value work tends to stop when the underlying infrastructure is unstable. I’m amazed how much energy our industry has spent asking regulators to tell us what we are allowed to build. Just like our consumers, we would gladly trade away option value and autonomy for certainty. Rather than build atop uncertainty our energy is spent trying to get to certainty or building in other lower value areas instead.

Today we are dealing with an entirely novel form of uncertainty in the face of a global pandemic. When will be allowed to go back to normal life? Will it be safe? What will the new normal look like? The change in our routine exacts a toll but I suspect the toll from the uncertainty is even larger.

As the cliché goes you don’t always know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I didn’t appreciate our new motto until the infrastructure we rely on got shaky.