Losing the battle with complexity

Feb 27, 2016 | George Fairbanks

Complexity is the #1 problem in software. Fred Brooks was right with No Silver Bullet, but there are levels of understanding his point. A trivial understanding has us realizing that no new tech will slay the werewolf, much as we hope it will. I’ve been through several ups and downs of anticipation of improvements, and indeed there have been improvements.

Deep down we hope that we are Neo and that if we achieve enlightenment that we can stop bullets and no foe can defeat us. I’m not downtrodden but today I realize that Neo can choke on a potato chip like anyone else. In fact, he may do that while he’s stopping bullets (or some other heroic task). Having mad samurai skills just increases your understanding of what’s happening and the chances you’ll not lose stupidly – but it’s not possible to eliminate the chances.

I hope that with more knowledge and experience that I can build simple systems more often, maybe even all the time. But I must acknowledge that no amount of knowledge or expertise will slay essential complexity. And seeming progress is an illusion based on accidental complexity that I now know how to slay.

“Essential” and “accidental” are great names for powerful ideas. In many ways I want to think that being insightful or clever reduces the essential complexity of my code, but by definition it cannot. What’s worse is that as requirements evolve some of my clever ways to simplify the problem may become invalid. For example, today I realized that our convenient use of an environment flag to set configuration is effective but quite fragile and likely not to survive in the face of changing requirements.

So, I’m not Neo and neither is anyone else. Every day we wake up, tie our shoes, and do battle with complexity. It can be worse than thankless because many of our co-workers aren’t as enlightened as us, they don’t see the complexity that they have created. (Indeed, being somewhat enlightened I realize how much simplicity my code lacks!) They resent the pressure and the criticism, despite how lightly I try to deliver it.

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George Fairbanks is a software developer, designer, and architect living in New York city

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