Skip to content

“You could simply do X” costs more

Someone always says it. “Could you just add this?” or “I don’t think it would be too hard to…” or if somebody else “changes these two simple things”, someone might create a completely bug-compatible, scale-compatible implementation of this other, undocumented service…wait, what?

Many of us are naturally optimistic people. We believe that the problems that befall others, or that we’ve experienced before, will not happen this time. That despite the last project suffering from “the code getting messier and messier”, we’ll do it right this time.

Optimism’s great. It tricks us into trying to solve difficult problems. It convinces us that the solution is “just around the corner”, so we should persevere. The problems start to arise when we realise that everyone else is optimistic, too—and that optimism is contagious. If you’re asked to give a drive-by estimate on how hard something is, or how long it takes, you’ll give an answer that probably doesn’t take into account all the problems that might arise. But now two of you believe in this optimistic estimate: after all, you’re a smart person, you’re trusted to give good estimates.

We need to be careful when talking to people who aren’t developers to make it clear that there’s no such thing as “simply” in most software systems. That “simply” adding a field brings with it all sorts of baggage: placing the field in an aesthetically pleasing fashion across multiple localised user interfaces, localising the field, building the user experience of interacting with the field and so on. That using the value from the field could turn it from a complicated problem into a complex problem, particularly if the field is just selecting between multiple implementations of what may even be multiple interfaces. That just adding this field brings not only work, but additional risk. That these are just the problems we could think of up front; there are often more that get uncovered as we begin to shave the yak.

But clearly we also need to bear in mind the problems we’ve faced and continue to face when talking to each other. We should remember that the last thing we tried to simply do ended up chasing a rabbit down a hole. If I don’t think that I can “simply” do something without unexpected complexity and risk, I should not expect that others can “simply” do it either.