A famous quote describes true engineering talent as “the ability to replace every component in a car that’s traveling at 100mph.” While Instagram – the photo-sharing app that Facebook just bought for $1 billion – doesn’t have anything to do with cars, its back-end does have a significant number of moving parts. And when Instagram went live in 2010, it generated 25,000 sign-ups on its first day – pretty impressive for a firm that was running on a server which was, in the words of one of Instagram’s two founders, “less powerful than my MacBook Pro.”
On that day in 2010, the founders (Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger) had to scramble to keep up with the load on their machine. They pulled through – and Instagram kept growing. It has added more than 30 million users in the two years it’s been around.
How did Systrom and Krieger achieve that kind of scalability? Aside from creating an app that resonated with consumers (no mean feat in itself), they homed in on three specific factors: simplicity, to the fullest extent possible; the minimization of operating resources; and instrumented testing of every software component.
In a recent presentation delivered at an Airbnb “Tech Talk,” the two men describe exactly how they built the platform that underpins Instagram. Even before the app grew to its current proportions, robustness and simplicity were the watchwords. And today, Instagram’s millions of users are supported by the efforts of just five (yes, five) engineers. That’s a ringing endorsement of the value of good design.