Dimensionality And The Unbearable Size Of Systems

Dan Luu’s excellent post about how things “look easy” to build has posed something of a vexing mystery to me: Why do people, whose entire (well-paid) job it is to build complex systems, insist and opine that something must be easy to build? To quote:

[…] But in the comments on Alex’s posts, multiple people respond and say that Lucene basically does the same thing Google does and that Lucene is poised to surpass Google’s capabilities in the next few years. It’s been long enough since then that we can look back and say that Lucene hasn’t improved so much that Google is in danger from a startup that puts together a Lucene cluster. If anything, the cost of creating a viable competitor to Google search has gone up.

I believe I have a reasonable guess at why that is: The “depth” of a system is hard to see, while the “width” is relatively plain.

To elaborate on what that actually means, let’s look at the environment Google exists in. The world at large, that meaning society, our planet, the interdependences of the various individual systems, is unfathomably complex. Luu brings up some of the stumbling points for someone trying to build a competitor to Google’s search: Latency, speed, various alphabets that aren’t always the same, indexing, making something easy to use even when that means being inconsistent, and so on. We can reasonably say that for all intents and purposes, environmental complexity of any system approaches infinity. For everything we consider, there’s additional corner cases to take into account, things that could happen that would change the outcome, or make the system not work as intended. The main reason we don’t consider solar rays flipping bits in our RAM as a top-level engineering concern is that, for most (but, crucially, not all) applications, it does not have enough impact to make the cut for “being worth addressing”.

Luhmann1 has given the only definition of “complexity” and “managing complexity” that I’ve found to hold up. To summarise: Complexity is the amount of input variables that you consider for deciding what you will do. Low-complexity systems are narrow if statements, they look at one or two input variables and decide the course of action. Of course, not much of the world is represented (or able to be represented) in one or two input variables, and much of it has to go unrepresented.

“Managing complexity” is then having input of a certain complexity and selecting a sensible, reasoned action from it. The more complexity you have at hand, the more “selectivity” you need. Humans, by themselves, don’t have much of this selectivity. We have trouble choosing what to eat for dinner. We have and build systems because they allow us to increase our selectivity, and therefore manage more complexity, and with it, deal with more of the world.

The larger the part of the world your system needs to handle, the bigger it needs to be. While the main point of a system is that it reduces complexity from the environment, that stays true for a surprisingly long time. Much like engineers in Luu’s essay, additional size in the system to handle more of the world pays for itself for a surprisingly long time, but not indefinitely. A system handling all and every edge and corner case is a map with scale 1:1, and with it, a bit worse than useless. The benefit of systems comes from choosing to not handle some cases.

Let’s call the “depth” of a system the proportional amount of the complexity the system handles in a given domain. That means, how well does it actually do that, how well does it deal with edge cases, how many of those does the system address? Domains have varying depths, and so do systems. A system like Google’s search is a particularly deep system for a deep domain, text search.

In contrast, the “width” of a system is then how many problems it claims to help with. Some domains are wide, like “efficiency”, some are quite narrow, like “text search”.

For a lot of systems, a rule of thumb therefore holds: If you see a system that is particularly wide without being also appropriately large organisationally, it won’t solve many of the problems of the domain. This is the “feature factory” problem, where, because you can say your system addresses a domain, you qualify for a binary test, but how well you address that domain is never tested. Google’s search is perhaps the inverse of that, where an extremely large set of resources is allocated to present a single input box to the user.

The mystery starts to unravel a bit once realise that it’s relatively easy to gauge the width of a system when you’re far away from it (i.e., not working on the domain it claims to help with), but the depth is, for all intents and purposes, impossible to gauge without having first-hand experience.

Additionally, there’s a quite elementary rule regarding complex system, most succinctly delivered by John Gall’s Systemantics2:

A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

You can’t skip the stages where the system only handles a small slice of the actual domain complexity. For every working complex system addressing a deep domain, there will be others that are not yet quite as large, and therefore handle less of the domain, than others. An example here would be DuckDuckGo, it handles less of the domain of internet search, but works better for some cases. (or otherwise it would not exist, and people would use the larger, existing system instead.)

We can’t actually gauge the size or complexity of a system without being involved in it, and we can’t gauge the depth of a domain without having worked on it.3 But we do have proxy measures: Engineering headcount4, company revenue5, interface design. With these proxy measures we can have a reasonable guess at whether or not the system is going to solve the problems we care about6, and with it, if we would be well-advised to use it. But this is hard, very hard. Choosing “what system do I best use to solve my problem” is the entire reason for companies like Gartner to exist. They’re not often even close to correct, but they provide an answer and that’s more than most people have.

Domains and problems may look easy, but then again no mountain looks that big when far away, but you sure feel every meter of height when climbing it.

  1. These days perhaps more famous for his Zettelkasten, he was also an incredible sociologist that I can’t shut up about, because much of his writing explains so much in so few concepts. 

  2. Which is an undying book, only getting more and more relevant, and never less. I highly recommend you give it a read. 

  3. For a quick and good demonstration of this, read these articles: patio11’s “Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names”, qntm’s “So you want to abolish time zones”, and this video of Tom Scott going mad while explaining why programmers hate time zones and dates

  4. My pet theory is that some companies, notably Coinbase, previously, Uber, and more recently, Fast (which prided itself on its hockey-stick growth… in headcount, shortly before imploding), realise that these are seen as proxy measures for how well the domain is addressed, when in reality, they’re just grossly overstaffed. This way they pass an initial smell-test for “can this company do what they claim to do”. 

  5. You can accuse Salesforce of many things, but you can be certain that their product works for a great amount of the domain they deal with, otherwise they would not have the business they do. How well it works for those problems is a different matter, but it does address many of the hidden corner cases adequately. 

  6. People with prior domain experience are much, much quicker at assessing this. They know where the corner-cases are that are important, but won’t seem that way without knowing the domain in detail. For one step further, read this story from Joel Spolsky about his first Bill Gates review, where Gates is assuaged by Spolsky pointing out precisely which corner cases it doesn’t handle, something you’d never think to point out if you weren’t intimately familiar with the domain.