Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Simplistic programming is underrated

I was a nerdy kid who liked to spend a lot of time reading. Back then, we did not have the Internet, we could not even imagine it… so I ended up reading the dictionary, reading my encyclopedia. I had a weird vocabulary. I could easily string sentences that nobody around me could understand. Adults would reward me with special attention when I would use words that they did not know.

That was not good.

I also learned to program relatively young. Information was scarce but I quickly absorbed everything I could. When I learned about structured programming, I rejected anything “more primitive”. Then I learned about object-oriented programming, and it was the end of structured programming. Then I learned about functional programming and thought that I had once more reached another level. I learned about metaprogramming and became a fan. And so forth.

That was not good.

I still write using big words sometimes, but never intentionally. I try to write short and simple sentences.

It took me a long time to figure out that the same is true with programming. If you can write a program using nothing but the simplest syntax, it is a net win.

I should explain. It is absolutely true that if you deploy a larger vocabulary if you use longer, more pompous sentences, many people will think you are smarter. The same is true with programming. If you can cram metaprogramming, pure functional programming, some assembly and a neural network into one program, many programmers will be impressed by your skills.

However, there are important downsides:

  • Your apparent mental prowesses will fail to impress those who find it easy to do the same. I have met my share of college students and professors who excel at dropping the name of a few philosophers, at using words only 1% of the population knows about… but, at a certain level, it does nothing for them. People simply roll their eyes and move on… If you have a job interview with Jeff Bezos or Peter Thiel, quoting famous philosophers or using big words might very well backfire.

Exactly the same argument works for programming. You might impress your peers with your fancy use of closures… but this no longer works so well on people who have known for a few decades what closure are. You simply won’t convince Linus Torvalds that you are hot because you use all of the features of the latest programming languages.

If you are used to achieving success by appearing smart… you might hit a ceiling, and you won’t even understand what is happening. There is a difference between appearing to be smart, and being smart.

Really smart people have no need to show off. If you are showing off, you are broadcasting that you aren’t really smart.

  • Big words and fancy programming techniques are asocial. They turn you into a jerk. Even the people who think that you are smart won’t enjoy working with you. We might be impressed by people who use big words, but we don’t want to hang out with them. It is annoying to collaborate with programmers who throw the big guns every little chance they get.
  • Complexity scales poorly. It is much easier to build on your previous work if it is simple. There is a reason we still teach Newton’s three laws. They are powerful because they can be expressed so simply. A simple piece of code that uses few features is easier to reuse.

I like the concept of “simplistic programming” by which I mean “programming that is so simple that people will criticize you for it”. At first, that sounds strange… can we really get criticized for being “too simple”? Of course, we do.