I’ve never been a fan of Evernote. I’ve probably tried it a dozen times, and I never end up using it for more than a day or two. But 250 million people disagree with me, and the reason I’ve tried more than once or twice is that a lot of people in my circle display religious fervor over how wonderful Evernote is. Regardless of whether I like Evernote or not, this isn’t really big tech news, but it is really interesting tech news, because it points to a pervasive issue in technology development. You can think of it as a special case of the old saw, “good, fast, cheap — pick any two”. You see, the new Evernote is here! (but there’s nothing new in it). Eighteen months ago, the new Evernote CEO told his staff to stop building features and new products, and rewrite the existing app from the ground up. Here’s an interview with him. Link
Like I said, the release of a new version of Evernote — particularly one that doesn’t do anything new — is hardly newsworthy, let alone worth including in this newsletter. But the CEO’s decision, and commitment to stick with that decision, to rewrite it from the ground up is very interesting. In the world of startups, there’s continual pressure to release new functionality, in order to remain competitive. One of the hardest decisions that every product manager makes for almost every software release is, ship it on time, or ship it with “sloppy code that will have to be fixed later”. Some companies are better at shipping good code than others, but I’ve never met nor even heard of a software company that didn’t come to this fork in the road at some point, and when you come to that fork enough times, sometimes you chose “ship working but terribly-written code”. This is what’s known in the industry as “technical debt”. It’s a debt, because you’re not paying it now — but you’re going to have to pay it at some point in the future. Eventually, that terribly-written code is going to come back to haunt some future engineering team and product manager, and they’re going to have to deal with it. Like I said, it happens with every company. It’s happened to me a dozen times. Worse, even if you’re very punctilious about shipping good code, dates be damned, you can still end up in a position of technical debt by not investing enough in the future. This is actually a large part of what happened to Evernote. Hundreds of millions of people loved their functionality, but they failed to invest enough in the future — specifically, they failed to invest in keeping the product current with modern architectures and deployment methodologies. The result? Five different Evernote apps, built by five different teams for five different platforms. It became impossible to roll out a new feature to everyone.
The new CEO’s call was bold — I’ve never heard of another company doing it. I mean, Apple has completely rearchitected a couple of times, but they don’t stop shipping the old stuff while they’re working on that. The question now is, even if he really had no choice (what was he going to do, keep investing in five teams that were individually continually falling behind, and giving users different experience depending on which platform they were using?), was it fast enough? Because, while Evernote was working on that, the world was moving on. I haven’t heard anyone mention Evernote in at least a year. And I’ve probably posted links to Notion notes two or three times in this newsletter (heck, there’s a link to one below, in the Interesting Things section). So, it’s worth watching Evernote to see if they’re able to get back on a growth trajectory now, or if it all really just took too long, and they’ve lost the momentum and the market. But, more importantly, it’s important to keep this concept of technical debt in mind when watching other tech companies. Every tech company suffers from technical debt. If they don’t have a plan to deal with it, over time, that debt will invariably bury them — and it’s not debt that shows up on the balance sheet. You need to be asking hard questions of management.