Layers, Complexity, and Trends

John Obelenus
3 min readOct 15, 2020


Photo by Clark Van Der Beken on Unsplash

There is a short post that I cherish called: Complexity Has To Live Somewhere. Sometimes engineers need to be reminded that if everything was simple, clean, and easy, we wouldn’t be getting paid. It is our job to create the interfaces, the abstractions, and the patterns that place the complexity where it belongs.

The truly insidious part about complexity is accidental complexity. To use a metaphor it is: “the cost of doing business.” Accidental complexity is all the other crap that you have to do before you can do what you need to do. There are lots of reasons for accidental complexity; leaky abstractions, tech debt, and technical decisions made before your time.

I’ve written before how writing software is more of an artisan process than a construction process. And it is because this is still a young immature industry, despite how large and monied it is. We’re still learning how to do this. Humans have been constructing buildings for thousands of years, we’ve figured out a few things and standardized on nearly everything. That said, there are still leaky abstractions and technical debt in construction.

I live in a house constructed in 1905. This has taught me a lot. Nothing is square, level, or plumb. That said, if you’ve ever walked into new construction-nothing is square level or plumb there either. Over that time there have been decisions and bad work. As an unskilled construction worker, I can get by fixing things in this house. But the true expert, the master of their craft in construction and carpentry, can walk in here and produce work that results in perfection despite what is underneath.

We aren’t close in the tech to allowing unskilled workers to make real progress. Hell, we’re still trying to help ourselves.

Most of the startups that cater to other developers are working to eliminate accidental complexity for others by taking it on themselves and asking folks to pay for it. Many open-source projects, I’m looking at you Kubernetes, are designed explicitly for removing this accidental complexity. To band together and try to make managing all the servers in a data center look like managing a single server. You can only reason about things that can fit inside your head. K8s is an operational metaphor that tries to get everything into your head so you can reason about it.

I look at Lambdas, and messaging services (whether it’s AMPQ or Kafka), and I see the attempt to make a distributed system made up of dozens of CPUs and hundreds of gigs of memory operate as if it was on one system. By making servers “not matter” you can think about your running application as a logic puzzle that runs on one system.

This is not limited to system design. We do this when we architect our code as well. We create interfaces and patterns that put complexity in the one spot where it is necessary to deal with. And we attempt to wall off each different complexity from one another.

This is the trend we’ve been on in cloud computing-eliminating anything and everything we can that makes applications look distributed. We don’t always succeed. Just like in construction nothing is level, square, or plumb. When the abstractions leak we need the experts, the master artisans.

We are trying desperately to do more with less. Fewer engineers, fewer meetings, because those are the most expensive pieces of this puzzle, the network effect born by communicating. I’m not sure we’re succeeding yet, but we’re trying like hell.

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John Obelenus

Solving Problems & Saving Time through Software and Crushing Entropy. Twitter: @EngineerJohnO