The quest for software perfection.

When I started my career as a software engineer at SGI in 1996, I had the privilege of working with a great engineer.

This engineer and I had very different perspectives on software. I viewed software as a means to an end. As a vehicle to deliver the features that the were asked of me. That the perfection of the software was immaterial, what was material was how fast you could deliver those features. In fact, sloppy, disorganized, poorly structured code was okay as long as it worked. What was material was the function not the form.

He, on the other hand, felt that software was like poetry. That it had its own intrinsic beauty and that its beauty was an end in and of itself.

That’s not to say that he did not care about the outcome and the product. He was always passionate about delivering value to customers. He just felt that the elegant, solution was always better than the quick solution.

Being young, and he being great, I was convinced that elegance was worth the price in time and effort.

I’m not sure I still agree with him.

My career is littered with software systems that are no longer in production. SGI’s kernel was EOL’ed last year. NetCache was sold off to Bluecoat. Most of the code I wrote for DFM has been re-written as more and different requirements came into existence.

And he would say that is natural and normal and a reflection of the natural process of things.

And I wonder.

Was it really worthwhile to strive to create the perfect solution given the market pressures? Would I have been better off to just get the job done in the most expedient way possible?

Ultimately, I think the answer boils down to an engineering tradeoff. The perfect solution makes sense if you understand the requirements and the requirements are stable. But if the requirements change, then your attempt to create perfection has to be balanced against expediency and need.

Although I can appreciate a beautiful piece of code, I somehow am more inspired by a system that is easily adapted. A systems whose core abstractions although imprecise are in the right general area and allow for substantial independent directions of innovation.

Let me try this differently.

I think it’s far more valuable to know what the core set of abstractions should be and their general properties than to specify them completely. Instead of trying to perfect them in isolation, one should expose them to the real world and then learn. And if the abstractions were correct, over time they will get precisely defined and perhaps at some point become perfect, as they no longer evolve.

But I suspect that I will have long since moved onto the next set of imperfect abstractions.

And in retrospect, that engineer always remarked that it’s much easier to replace an elegant easily understood solution than a complex, baroque, over or under-engineered hack that was expedient.

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