Don't Be Clever

I was recently watching a talk by Dan North. At one point he briefly talks about a project he worked on. For this project, the Ant build script was generated with an XSLT transform, producing a build script about 2 million lines long. Even though that is clearly horrible, my first fleeting thought was, Huh, I would have never thought to do that. That's pretty clever..

Dan North's Simplicity, the Way of the Unusual Architect, at the time of the story

That's pretty clever, is absolutely the wrong thought to have. I cannot fathom the monumental, wasted effort maintaining such a system. But I am also sure it started as someone's clever idea. There would be plenty out there who would say, Well, that project went wrong, but the idea itself isn't bad. It's pretty darn clever, really.

"Cleverness" like that always seems promising at first. It is a novel view of a problem at hand. Because clever ideas are novel in completely unexpected ways, they have unexpected consequences. Once in place, they become entrenched in the structure. Just implementing those ideas was an undertaking because of their cleverness. Throwing that all away is not an option. Keeping them working under evolving circumstances requires layering on additional cleverness. It all looks like a precarious game of Jenga. There are quirks to build around. There are blocks never to be touched.

Brian Kernighan said, Everyone knows that debugging is twice as hard as writing a program in the first place. So if you're as clever as you can be when you write it, how will you ever debug it? Those of us who are not clever enough are trapped. We plod through the complexity just trying not to break anything. Most importantly, we will all end up not being clever enough eventually.

We all seem to admire cleverness, despite its dark side. From a young age, we are praised for our cleverness. It becomes an admirable trait. Cleverness "on the computer" might even be why we do what we do. That's why we momentarily admire horrifying things, like XSLT transforming Ant scripts. Cleverness is not intelligence, though. We can be smart without doing clever things.

Smart people like to be challenged. Being clever is one sort of challenge, but there are others. A better challenge is to be dull. Think of the most boring, straightforward way of doing something. Make it just flexible enough, but don't over engineer. If it is simple enough for a brand new software developer to understand, you've achieved your goal. When you produce software that dull, you produce software that is maintainable, software that is able to evolve.


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