The origin of the term “Greenfield Project” stems from the construction industry. Simply defined: it is a purely new project, requiring no consideration or effort related to prior work.
The software industry has adopted this concept, and, due to the idiosyncrasies of this particular market segment, the term has special connotations and relevance, particularly for technology startups.
From an engineering and business perspective, greenfield projects are the best and most exciting types of work. They offer the opportunity to create in a totally new environment without constraints regarding prior technology choices, or the often-significant encumbrance of handling legacy users and data.
At the same time, greenfield projects bring more risk; new teams, new technology approaches, new markets, and new customers are the hallmarks. Yes, these initiatives are more fun to work on and present a higher upside. But, they are also more likely to end in failure.
Compare this with a Legacy Project (as discussed in my last post), where the task involves maintaining and marginally improving existing software while juggling an established and demanding customer base. By its nature, this work is slower-moving, leverages often-dated technologies, and includes mundane tasks such as re-factoring code to atone for often-deliberate shortcuts taken once upon a time, back when this now legacy project was itself a new, exciting greenfield initiative and speed to market was the top priority
Legacy software projects, with an accompanying customer base, present a more predictable, steadier, and safer trajectory for a career path. For those who feel more comfortable with some career risk, a greenfield project at a startup is worth the tradeoff on security.
Of course, as with anything, it’s not always a bright line. Just as not all legacy software projects are equally boring, not all greenfield projects contain the same level of inherent risk. Discerning which startup software opportunity has (or is likely to get) traction can substantially mitigate the risks. By choosing wisely, a developer can enjoy the best of both worlds.