Great coffee and technical decision making

Kopi Luwak is considered the best coffee in the world. What makes it great is intriguing, shocking, and shows how something great can be perversely twisted into proverbial poop.

A cup of steaming coffee

The name “kopi luwak” means “civet coffee.” The luwak, also known as the palm civet, is a small mammal that lives in Southeast Asia. Luwaks eat many things but enjoy fruits and berries the most. In particular, they are known to select the finest, most mature berries. This is the secret to the greatness of kopi luwak.

When people pick coffee berries, they are less discriminating and don’t have time to pick out the ripest individual berries. Luwaks, on the other hand, have nothing better to do. They end up eating only the most ripe coffee berries and the coffee beans in them.

After a luwak feasts on the ripest berries, it does what every animal does. It poops. The seeds come out whole. People go around and collect the scattered luwak poop with the coffee seeds in it. They clean the seeds, roast them, and sell them as premium kopi luwak.

People caught on to this, and kopi luwak became popular. The problem is it’s not easy to produce a lot of kopi luwak quickly. At any moment in time, there are only so many ripe coffee beans to pick. Also, finding the scattered poo of wild animals is not easy and takes time.

So people focused on the poo factor. It was shocking. It stands out. It's what people remember most about kopi luwak.

People started breeding luwaks in captivity and feeding them coffee. They could get a lot of kopi luwak, as gathering poo became much less of an effort. You still get kopi luwak, with its memorable story, and pay a premium price. The problem is, it’s not the same thing as the original kopi luwak.

This new captive efficient kopi luwak is inferior. The captive luwaks are fed normal coffee, picked by regular people with quotas. It misses the most important quality of kopi luwak: ripe berries.

People copied the most visible and noticeable aspect of the original, namely feeding coffee berries to luwaks and gathering them in the poop. They missed that this is not what makes kopi luwak great. They shallowly imitated the original and completely missed the true benefit.

Something similar happens too often when we make technical decisions. Whether it is picking a dev process, an architecture, or a library, too often we go with what is popular. We concentrate on the loud headline message. We copy indiscriminately, believing the headline story. If it worked for BigCo, it will allow us to become BigCo. We copy, call what we do by the same name, but don’t stop to consider what really makes it valuable. We don’t stop to think if we are applying it correctly, or if it even fits our use case.

The tech world is filled with such cases. Microservices. TDD. Kubernetes. SPAs. Scrum. NoSQL. GraphQL. These are only examples, and pretty much anything that becomes popular suffers from the same curse as modern kopi luwak. All of these technologies are great for some use cases and situations. When applied correctly, they deliver tremendous value.

Too often though, people decide to use them based on superficial claims and without enough critical thinking. They are shiny, popular, and new, and have a compelling and memorable success story behind them. But they won't bring value to your company just because they are shiny, popular, and new. These tools solve very particular problems, and these may not be the problems that you need to solve. They carry costs, which are often completely overlooked, or not understood. They can provide a ton of value, but you need to take the time to understand what that value is, and what else you will need to do in order to actually get it.

When adopting new technology or methodology, you must think critically about what you are getting, how it solves your problems, what costs it has, and whether it's actually needed in your situations. To pick well, you need experience. You need domain knowledge. You need a clear understanding of your goals. If you do it well, you end up with a cup of the best coffee in the world. If you don’t, you’ll wnd up with an expensive cup of shitty coffee.