Code, Picasso, and Simplicity

I coded all day yesterday, focusing on a new feature for Hirelite: Speed Dating for Software Jobs. I implemented ~300 lines, added tons of functionality, and was feeling crazy productive. After this surge of productivity, though, the familiar pangs of technical debt anxiety came. I prescribed a hearty dose of refactoring.

I looked for commonalities to refactor among the eight paths of the feature. In particular, two paths stuck out as having more in common with the rest of the feature than the other six. Coincidentally, these two paths were far more commonly used than the others. Additionally, these two paths could effectively cover the scenarios implied by the other six.

Interestingly, these commonalities emerged through implementation. As I implemented the eight paths, the data structures backing each path generally fell in to two buckets. Each of the two more commonly used paths took advantage of different data structures, allowing the less common paths to be covered by one or a combination of the two.

These things weren't obvious from the user experience or product perspective. It took a deep, code-level understanding of the details of the problem and multiple potential solutions to surface this insight.

By the time I actually finished the feature, it was down to 50 lines. Though the simplified solution now seems obvious, I'm sure I would not have found this shortcut without working through the initial cases and writing the 300 lines. 

It always astounds me how much work it takes to understand something well enough to truly simplify it. Sometimes I feel bad, like I've wasted a bunch of time building something that should have been easy from the start. Or maybe I shouldn't have done it at all - I should have hired a rockstarguru who doesn't need to write rough drafts of anything, ever. And then I remember those people don't actually exist.

The same seems to be true for art. Picasso said:

... pictures went forward toward completion by stages. Every day brought something new. A picture used to be a sum of additions. In my case a picture is a sum of destructions. I do a picture - then I destroy it. In the end, though, nothing is lost: the red I took away from one place turns up somewhere else.

Picasso simplified masterfully. In 45 days, he drew 11 bulls, eventually boiling a bull down to just 9 lines.

Pablo Picasso - The Bull. Dec. 5th 1945 - Jan. 17, 1946. Image source and further reading: Pablo Picasso - Bull: a master class on abstract art

Despite all this, I still have this gut feeling that I should have known.

  • Do you run in to situations like this?
  • Any tips on how to shortcut early iterations that take so much time?
  • Is this the type of thing that more experience helps you get around or is it purely a creative process?

After we launch the feature, I'll try to follow up with a deeper dive in to the specifics of the implementation.