The Power of Simplicity: Why Complex Solutions Aren't Always Better

October 11, 2023

In the world of software engineering, complexity often takes center stage. We celebrate intricate algorithms, sprawling architectures, and convoluted code as signs of expertise. But what if I told you that complexity isn’t always the answer? In fact, more often than not, simpler solutions are not only easier to understand and maintain but also more effective in solving real-world problems.

It’s easy to understand why complexity is alluring. Complex code and systems can make us feel like we’re tackling profound problems, and they can impress colleagues and peers. After all, isn’t it an engineer’s job to deal with complex challenges and find ingenious solutions? While complexity certainly has its place, the obsession with it has its drawbacks.

Complexity characterises the behaviour of a system or model whose components interact in multiple ways and follow local rules, leading to non-linearity, randomness, collective dynamics, hierarchy, and emergence. — Wikipedia

Complexity as a Double-Edged Sword

Complex solutions often bring several problems to the table:

  1. Maintenance Nightmare Complexity increases the maintenance burden. Code that is intricate and hard to follow can lead to a constant struggle to fix bugs, add features, or adapt to changing requirements. As your codebase grows in complexity, so does the likelihood of introducing new bugs when making changes.

  2. Knowledge Gaps Complexity creates knowledge gaps. When a system or piece of code becomes overly complex, it becomes challenging for team members to understand and modify. This leads to a situation where only a select few team members possess the expertise needed to work on that part of the system, creating bottlenecks and risks if they leave the team or organization.

  3. Poor Performance Complex solutions can often lead to poor performance. More code paths, intricate algorithms, and excessive abstractions can slow down your application. In many cases, simpler solutions are not only easier to understand but also more efficient in terms of performance.

The Beauty of Simplicity

Simplicity is not the same as laziness or a lack of ambition. Instead, it’s about finding the most straightforward and efficient solution to a problem. Here are some reasons why simplicity should be celebrated:

  1. Easier to Understand Simpler code is easier to understand. When you write code that is clear, concise, and straightforward, not only is it easier for you to grasp, but it’s also easier for your colleagues to understand. This promotes better collaboration and makes it easier to onboard new team members.

  2. Reduced Bugs Simple solutions tend to have fewer bugs. When you have a clear understanding of the code you’re working with, you’re less likely to introduce errors when making changes. In complex systems, bugs can hide in the labyrinth of code paths, making them harder to detect and fix.

  3. Faster Development Simplicity often leads to faster development. With a simpler codebase, you spend less time deciphering and navigating the complexities, and more time writing and testing new features. This can accelerate your development process and help you respond to changing requirements more efficiently.

  4. Better Performance Simple solutions can also result in better performance. Less convoluted code tends to be more efficient, as there are fewer layers of abstraction and indirection. In many cases, a straightforward approach can outperform a convoluted one.

When to Choose Complexity Over Simplicity

Of course, there are situations where complexity is warranted. Certain problems are inherently complex, and simplicity can lead to oversimplification, which isn’t a solution either. When dealing with large-scale distributed systems, cryptographic algorithms, or some cutting-edge AI models, complexity is a necessity.

However, even in complex domains, it’s essential to strive for simplicity within the complexity. For example, you can isolate the complexity in well-defined modules or components, keeping the rest of your codebase as simple as possible. This makes it easier to reason about and maintain your system.

As software engineers, we must learn to strike a balance between complexity and simplicity. Complexity should be a tool in our toolkit, but not the default choice. By embracing simplicity, we can create code that is more maintainable, reliable, and efficient, ultimately leading to better software and happier developers.

Originally published on Plato