Photo credit: Amplitude

There really aren’t revolutionary ideas in product development, so much as riffs on timeless principles. There’s no “new” way of doing things that yields magical results. Best practices today are simply a repackaging of proven processes, often in a neat-and-tidy manner that serves an immediate purpose (like selling books or consulting services).

Case in point: consider a foundational principle of startup software product development. Coaches, consultants, authors, teachers, influencers – many would have you believe that iterative development is fresh or innovative. 

It is not.  

At its core, this is  just a different way to describe trial and error and, even more basic, how people learn to do anything. The buid-measure-learn cycle is as old as recorded history. 

Take the history of the Great Pyramid in Giza:. 

Completed in the 26th century BC and reaching a staggering 481 feet with sides angled at 51 degrees, this is the only ancient wonder of the world still in existence. And, get this: the Great Pyramid held the title of tallest building in the world for a mind-boggling 3,800 years (when its height was exceeded by the Eiffel Tower in 1889). 

The perfection of the Great Pyramid is breathtaking – not only the scope of the project, but also its design and sheer presence.

This result, however, hardly came out of nowhere. There was no magic or beginner’s luck. The Egyptians had to invent processes for design, engineering, logistics, and construction to pull this off, and they did it the way you would expect: experimentation (a.k.a. trial and error). 

The evidence of their product development journey is close by.

 Before the Grand Pyramid in Giza, there was this one:

Rising to to 344 feet, the Dahsur Pyramid is important, both architecturally and in the context of this post: it represents an important evolutionary step that just preceded and enabled The Great Pyramid. Sometimes referred to as the Bent Pyramid, Dahsur features a steeper base (54 degrees, or slightly less steep than its successor in Giza) which transitions abruptly midway (to 43 degrees). A prevailing theory is, as this was the first foray into a smooth-sided (from step design – see below), there was a measure of tactile learning going on here: the disjointed sides and shallower top angle were a necessary concession introduced mid-construction as the structure started to show instability as the pyramid rose higher.  

Germane to this story, Dahsur could either be regarded as a false start to the ultimate goal, or, more charitably, a milestone improvement from the one which preceded it….

Located ten miles south and completed only seventy years before the beginning of construction for the Grand Pyramid, the Pyramid of Djoser is the oldest known pyramid in the world. Absent the contrast with its successors, it is an astounding achievement in and of itself. But, in comparison, it loses its shine a bit. It is far smaller (205 feet in height) and certainly less gracious.  Hey, it’s a good reminder that everyone has to start somewhere – in this case, with a smaller footprint and step-sided design.

Coming back full circle: the only difference between the Egyptian model of engineering progress and the best-practices of iterative software development is that things move so much faster when you’re building with lines of code (and not stones, some weighing thousands of pounds, placed by hand). Software development cycles are typically measured in weeks. It’s a bit longer when you are moving atoms (stones) as opposed to electrons (lines of code). 

It’s still trial and error, though. And the best result comes from paying attention and learning from preceding efforts. The old “build-measure-learn” cycle has been around for quite some time.

Netflix’s founder summarized one fun aspect of this quite nicely when he observed:

It took only seventy years for the Egyptians to iterate from a relatively small, clunky, step-sided pyramid in Djoser and apply their learnings to their finished product in Giza. All things considered, this is remarkably fast. At the same time, their retrospective embarrassment of comparing their first launch (MVP) to ultimate creation was spared as none of the original folks was still alive to see the Grand Pyramid.

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