How does software development relate to reality?

I recently appeared as a guest on the .NET Rocks! podcast where we discussed Fred Brooks' 1986 essay No Silver Bullet. As a reaction, Jon Suda wrote a thoughtful piece of his own. That made me think some more.

Beware of Greeks... #

Brooks' central premise is Aristotle's distinction between essential and accidental complexity. I've already examined the argument in my previous article on the topic, but in summary, Brooks posits that complexity in software development can be separated into those two categories:

c = E + a

Here, c is the total complexity, E is the essential complexity, and a the accidental complexity. I've deliberately represented c and a with lower-case letters to suggest that they represent variables, whereas I mean to suggest with the upper-case E that the essential complexity is constant. That's Brooks' argument: Every problem has an essential complexity that can't be changed. Thus, your only chance to reduce total complexity c is to reduce the accidental complexity a.

Jon Suda writes that

"Mark doesn’t disagree with the classification of problems"

That got me thinking, because actually I do. When I wrote Yes silver bullet I wanted to engage with Brooks' essay on its own terms.

I do think, however, that one should be sceptical of any argument originating from the ancient Greeks. These people believed that all matter was composed of earth, water, air, and fire. They believed in the extramission theory of vision. They practised medicine by trying to balance blood, phlegm, yellow, and black bile. Aristotle believed in spontaneous generation. He also believed that the brain was a radiator while the heart was the seat of intelligence.

I think that Aristotle's distinction between essential and accidental complexity is a false dichotomy, at least in the realm of software development.

The problem is the assumption that there's a single, immutable underlying reality to be modelled.

Modelling reality #

Jon Suda touches on this as well:

"Conceptual (or business) problems are rooted in the problem domain (i.e., the real world)[...]"

"Dealing with the "messy real world" is what makes software development hard these days"

I agree that the 'real world' (whatever it is) is often messy, and our ability to deal with the mess is how we earn our keep. It seems to me, though, that there's an underlying assumption that there's a single real world to be modelled.

I think that a more fruitful perspective is to question that assumption. Don’t try to model the real world, it doesn’t exist.

I've mostly worked with business software. Web shops, BLOBAs, and other software to support business endeavours. This is the realm implicitly addressed by Domain-Driven Design and a technique like behaviour-driven development. The assumption is that there's one or more domain experts who know how the business operates, and the job of the software development team is to translate that understanding into working software.

This is often the way it happens. Lord knows that I've been involved in enough fixed-requirements contracts to know that sometimes, all you can do is try to implement the requirements as best you can, regardless of how messy they are. In other words, I agree with Jon Suda that messy problems are a reality.

Where I disagree with Brooks and Aristotle is that business processes contain essential complexity. In the old days, before computers, businesses ran according to a set of written and unwritten rules. Routine operations might be fairly consistent, but occasionally, something out of the ordinary would happen. Organisations don't have a script for every eventuality. When the unexpected happens, people wing it.

A business may have a way it sells its goods. It may have a standard price list, and a set of discounts that salespeople are authorised to offer. It may have standard payment terms that customers are expected to comply with. It may even have standard operating procedures for dealing with missing payments.

Then one day, say, the German government expresses interest in placing an order greater than the business has ever handled before. The Germans, however, want a special discount, and special terms of payment. What happens? Do the salespeople refuse because those requests don't comply with the way the organisation does business? Of course not. The case is escalated to people with the authority to change the rules, and a deal is made.

Later, the French government comes by, and a similar situation unfolds, but with the difference that someone else handles the French, and the deal struck is different.

The way these two cases are handled could be internally inconsistent. Decisions are made based on concrete contexts, but with incomplete information and based on gut feelings.

While there may be a system to how an organisation does routine business, there's no uniform reality to be modelled.

You can model standard operating procedures in software, but I think it's a mistake to think that it's a model of reality. It's just an interpretation on how routine business is conducted.

There's no single, unyielding essential complexity, because the essence isn't there.

Shaping reality #

Dan North tells a story of a project where a core business requirement was the ability to print out data. When investigating the issue, it turned out that users needed to have the printout next to their computers so that they could type the data into another system. When asked whether they wouldn't rather prefer to have the data just appear in the other system, they incredulously replied, "You can do that?!

This turns out to be a common experience. Someone may tell you about an essential requirement, but when you investigate, it turns out to be not at all essential. There may not be any essential complexity.

There's likely to be complexity, but the distinction between essential and accidental complexity seems artificial. While software can model business processes, it can also shape reality. Consider a company like Amazon. The software that supports Amazon wasn't developed after the company was already established. Amazon developed it concurrently with setting up business.

Consider companies like Google, Facebook, Uber, or Airbnb. Such software doesn't model reality; it shapes reality.

In the beginning of the IT revolution, the driving force behind business software development was to automate existing real-world processes, but this is becoming increasingly rare. New companies enter the markets digitally born. Older organisations may be on their second or third system since they went digital. Software not only models 'messy' reality - it shapes 'messy' reality.

Conclusion #

It may look as though I fundamentally disagree with Jon Suda's blog post. I don't. I agree with almost all of it. It did, however, inspire me to put my thoughts into writing.

My position is that I find the situation more nuanced than Fred Brooks suggests by setting off from Aristotle. I don't think that the distinction between essential and accidental complexity is the whole story. Granted, it provides a fruitful and inspiring perspective, but while we find it insightful, we shouldn't accept it as gospel.


I think I agree with virtually everything said here – if not actually everything 😊

As (virtually, if not actually) always, though, there are a few things I’d like to add, clarify, and elaborate on 😊

I fully share your reluctance to accept ancient Greek philosophy. I once discussed No Silver Bullet (and drank Scotch) with a (non-developer) “philosopher” friend of mine. (Understand: He has a BA in philosophy 😊) He said something to the effect of do you understand this essence/accident theory is considered obsolete? I answered that it was beside the point here – at least as far as I was concerned. For me, the dichotomy serves as an inspiration, a metaphor perhaps, not a rigorous theoretical framework – that’s one of the reasons why I adapted it into the (informal) conceptual/technical distinction.

I also 100% agree with the notion that software shouldn’t merely “model” or “automate” reality. In fact, I now remember that back in university, this was one of the central themes of my “thesis” (or whatever it was). I pondered the difference/boundary between analysis and design activities and concluded that the idea of creating a model of the “real world” during analysis and then building a technical representation of this model as part of design/implementation couldn’t adequately describe many of the more “inventive” software projects and products.

I don’t, however, believe this makes the conceptual/technical (essential/accidental) distinction go away. Even though the point of a project may not (and should not) be a mere automation of a preexisting reality, you still need to know what you want to achieve (i.e., “invent”), conceptually, to be able to fashion a technical implementation of it. And yes, your conceptual model should be based on what’s possible with all available technology – which is why you’ll hopefully end up with something way better than the old solution. (Note that in my post, I never talk about “modeling” the “messy real world” but rather “dealing with it”; even your revolutionary new solution will have to coexist with the messy outside world.)

For me, one of the main lessons of No Silver Bullet, the moral of the story, is this: Developers tend to spend inordinate amounts of time discussing and brooding over geeky technical stuff; perhaps they should, instead, talk to their users a bit more and learn something about the problem domain; that’s where the biggest room for improvement is, in my opinion.

2020-05-20 16:40 UTC


Let the inspiration feedback loop continue 😊 I agree with more-or-less everything you say; I just don’t necessarily think that your ideas are incompatible with those expressed in No Silver Bullet. That, to a significant extent (but not exclusively), is what my new post is about. As I said in my previous comment, your article reminded me of my university “thesis,” and I felt that the paper I used as its “conceptual framework” was worth presenting in a “non-academic” form. It can mostly be used to support your arguments – I certainly use it that way.

2020-05-29 17:28 UTC

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Monday, 18 May 2020 07:08:00 UTC


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Published: Monday, 18 May 2020 07:08:00 UTC