Neglecting software complexity is a costly mistake.
Software complexity affects everything from your team’s ability to deliver software on time to the value of that software to your company and your company’s long-term viability as a software business.
Complex software is a problem because it’s insidious. People don’t notice it until issues, deadlines, or change requests hit.
In this article, we’ll look at six ways to keep complexity at bay while producing elegant solutions.
It’s vital to distinguish between new software construction and maintenance.
Too many chefs in the kitchen will spoil your dish. Building your software with a small, focused, and well-aligned team is the first step to ensuring it stays organized.
It is common for organizations with hundreds of engineers to have multiple teams building features and not have a single person who understands how all the individual code pieces work together. This noise leads to frustration, wasted effort, and unnecessary complexity, sending your team scrambling when they realize you can’t hit a deadline or something goes wrong.
Every engineer brings their understanding to the table, making inconsistency inevitable. Aligning too many teams is tough. Any misalignment drives complexity into your software.
And any system is only as strong as its weakest link. Too many variations or misaligned opinions at the beginning diminish your chances of success.
You only get a single, cohesive, and clear design if you have fewer highly skilled engineers on your initial build with a single architect. With this setup, your team stays tightly aligned, sees how each choice affects the system, and works smarter together, not harder.
For example, when everyone on the team handles the results of every decision, they are more likely to come up with solutions that are well-aligned, high-quality, and will last. This only happens with smaller teams that can’t hide by throwing issues over the fence for someone else to pick up.
Once you’ve shipped to production, established stable core structures, and automated quality control constraints to keep things steady, you’re in the maintenance stage, where bringing in more people is safer.
Precision is appealing because it appears to show effort, skill, and understanding. However, experts know it is messy, costly, and usually results in piles of complex garbage.
Here’s why: It is straightforward to amass massive heaps of highly inaccurate yet precise estimates, requirements, or instructions. That’s why precision drives tremendous complexity, often with no value and high waste.
Simple is not easy. Elegantly simple solutions take tremendous skill, experience, and discipline. But arriving at simple solutions is key to fending off complexity.
Think of it this way: With modern software development, we’ve seen how we have more to learn after our project starts. While your team might have a clear target and a general map at the start, chances are they also have many incorrect assumptions. Specifics come into focus down the road.
Given this context, precision is a waste of time and money because you’ll likely pivot away from your investment. Its only value will be as a paperweight. Precision is only valuable once you have everything nailed down and can freeze all conditions, which doesn’t happen in modern software development until you are in construction or making adjustments during maintenance.
The point is to focus on accuracy over precision. Design big and build small. Starting with low-fidelity design and drilling into more detail as you get closer to a milestone.
Coarse-grained estimations are the best way to get an accurate picture of the overall work required. You use the law of large numbers to smooth out differences, which gives you the best overall project projection you can get given software product development today.
When we talk about the value of your software, it includes the value for your customers and your company.
To do this, you first need to identify how your software helps your customers. Is it solving a real problem for your customers? What’s the impact? How do you measure value?
Then, you need to define the effects on your company. Where does it fit? What’s the revenue? How do you measure success?
A shared understanding ensures your product meets your customers’ and you business needs and that everyone on your team has a clear mental model of the problems and benefits.
Alignment drives down complexity because everyone is working toward the same goals so your team needs to know what you’re building and why.
In order to take a holistic approach, you need to know what your goals are for product design, engineering, and quality assurance. You need to make sure that everyone in your organization knows what their roles and responsibilities are.
When product designers solve business problems and engineers solve technical implementation problems, you can avoid passing off solutions that are too complicated, ineffective, or not needed as requirements. You also avoid the common trap of building “solution” features that solve a problem your customers don’t yet have or need to solve.
This allows your teams to stay hyper-focused and avoid unnecessary conversations, features, or implementation complexities. And you boost the efficacy of your team because everyone focuses on what they do best and doesn’t waste time doing anything they are not good at.
Automation is a crucial ingredient in reducing complexity.
Manual processes cause many software problems, like inconsistencies and unreliability. When you automate manual processes, they become more consistent and less complicated, and your team can focus on giving your customers value.
Many teams still rely on manual processes for release management, which means many teams are subject to human error.
For example, software releases are hard to plan, have many moving parts, and increase risk if not executed perfectly every time. And that’s not something people are good at. However, it’s the perfect job for machines.
Using the right tools for the job is why mature DevOps practices reduce downtime, improve reliability, and speed up the release of your software.
Quality assurance must be non-negotiable but flexible.
You’re fighting for survival against entropy, but it’s a give-and-take exercise.
When changing any system, you always introduce entropy. It’s a loan you must pay back, or the compounding interest will swallow your team whole. This nonlinear behavior of tech debt is why the longer you wait before paying it down, the more expensive it becomes.
On the other hand, perfection is also slow and expensive.
Allow your systems to flex, breathe, and balance the costs of technical debt with the speed of forward motion based on your situation. For example, medical device software should have a much higher bar for quality than typical business applications.
The best way to keep technical debt low while keeping the rate of feature development high is to invest early in automated testing as insurance. This allows you to identify many problems before they get out of control. However, automated tests must cover enough of your system so that you can quickly detect when things break later when you make changes or add new features.
Avoiding complexity altogether is the best way to ensure your software is simple.
Complexity is a constant struggle in digital product development. If you’re an engineer, product designer, or executive, you’ll be more effective if you find the sources of complexity in your software and eliminate them.
Simple solutions are elegant and lead to better systems. Better systems make for happier customers. And happier customers make you more successful.
By mastering the tips in this article, you can keep your products from getting too complicated.
While it’s not always easy, do the right thing. As Einstein said, keep it as simple as possible, but not simpler.
By the way, are you struggling to manage complexity and deliver on your software project deadlines?
Truth Shield can help! Our team of experts will work with you to evaluate the full scope of your SaaS product development. We’ll identify the risks and provide solutions to mitigate those risks. You can trust our team to be objective and unbiased, and we’ll provide a clear assessment, so you can make informed decisions.