Keeping it simple is hard indeed

When I read the great book (or collection of essays) “97 Things Every Software Architect Should Know”, there was a story I had experienced first-hand for nearly every chapter. But it was only after I read about it in the well-placed words of somebody with greater in-depth experience than me that it appeared clear to me. The essence of my own experience was written down so I could iterate over it. Here is a story about simplicity that I hope will help somebody out there iterate over the same thought sometimes.

The problem

In the early days, we were asked to provide custom software for a nearly robot-like machine that performs measurements. Our software had to control some engines that could move sensors and actuators around. The whole machine was built by another company that only had eyes for the mechanical and electrical aspects. As a result, the communication protocol between the microcontrollers of the machine and our software was horribly awkward and unpleasant in regard of the software engineering side of the project.

One engine was the so-called “vertical engine”, because it could move an array of sensors up and down. There were four actual positions where the engine would stop automatically upon contact. It was the job of our software to send the correct commands in the correct order at the correct time to reach the destination. Effectively, we would “hop” from position to position, either moving the sensors up or down. If only the communication protocol would’ve allowed that. What we got was two commands: moving one position down and moving up to the topmost position. The movement options are depicted here:

The first solution

But what would a developer’s life be without a few challenges? Our team quickly came up with several possible solutions, from finite state machines to object graphs of “position” instances that offered several “movement options” to an agent-like object travelling inside the graph. In the brainstorming session, even more sophisticated possibilities were discussed. The solution we finally implemented was complex in terms of clarity. We needed quite a few unit and integration tests to proof the whole thing correct. During all this process, nobody ever questioned the complexity of the problem.

The essay

The chapter I read in the book “97 Things Every Software Architect Should Know” when this story came back to me was “Make Sure the Simple Stuff Is Simple” written by Chad LaVigne. Let me cite some sentences to show the message of his essay:

“People who design software are smart – really smart. The simple problem-complex solution trap can be an easy one to fall into because we like to demonstrate our knowledge. If you find yourself designing a solution so clever that it may become self-aware, stop and think. Does the solution fit the problem?”

The essay hit the nail on the head for me. Our solutions for this “vertical engine” were all clever and solved the problem, but a much more complex problem than the one that was really needed.

The second solution

Our first version of the software went into production and worked a treat. Years later, the hardware (specifically the microcontrollers) fell apart and was replaced by more sophisticated electronics. We needed to rewrite parts of our software, especially the engine controls. But this time, we had real movement patterns of all engines, collected in the logfiles. Some regular expression magic later (remember, we are smart people and like to show that!), it was clear that the vertical engine had never used two of the possible movement options. The real usage pattern of the engine is depicted in the picture below:

The real problem we should have solved from the beginning is much simpler than the original one. Every engine position has only one successor, there is no need to choose from several options or to calculate the shortest path to the destination. It’s the most boring finite state machine you’ve ever seen and there is no need for recursive structures.

It was our own cleverness that made the problem appear more complex than it really was, just because we could handle it. Some investigation on the problem domain instead of the solution domain would have brought us to the same conclusion that the log file analysis finally revealed.

The lesson learnt

The whole story isn’t about failure. Both solutions worked for the customer. In fact, he never noticed a difference when the second solution was going live. This story is about accidental complexity and about being smarter than the requirement. It’s in our nature to accept a problem as “given” and come up with an elegant solution. It might be much more effective to question the problem instead.

Thank you, Chad, for your great essay!

One thought on “Keeping it simple is hard indeed

  1. There’s another lesson to be learned here:
    Reducing complexity in the problem domain far outweighs trying to reduce complexity in the solution domain.

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