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Why embracing complexity is the real challenge in software today

In the midst of industry discussions about productivity and automation, it’s all too easy to overlook the importance of properly reckoning with complexity.

September 29, 2023

Provided byThoughtworks

Technology Radar is a snapshot of the current technology landscape produced by Thoughtworks twice a year; it’s based on technologies we’ve been using as an organization and communicates our perspective on them. There is always a long list of candidates to be featured for us to work through and discuss, but with each edition that passes, the number of technologies the group discusses grows ever longer. It seems there are, increasingly, more and more ways to solve a problem. On the one hand this is a good thing—the marketplace is doing its job offering a wealth of options for technologists. Yet on the other it also adds to our cognitive load: there are more things to learn about and evaluate.

It’s no accident that many of the most widely discussed trends in technology—such as data mesh and, most recently, generative AI (GenAI)—are presented as solutions to this complexity. However, it’s important that we don’t ignore complexity or see it as something that can be fixed: we need to embrace it and use it to our advantage.

Redistributing complexity

The reason we can’t just wish away or “fix” complexity is that every solution—whether it’s a technology or methodology—redistributes complexity in some way. Solutions reorganize problems. When microservices emerged (a software architecture approach where an application or system is composed of many smaller parts), they seemingly solved many of the maintenance and development challenges posed by monolithic architectures (where the application is one single interlocking system). However, in doing so microservices placed new demands on engineering teams; they require greater maturity in terms of practices and processes. This is one of the reasons why we cautioned people against what we call “microservice envy” in a 2018 edition of the Technology Radar, with CTO Rebecca Parsons writing that microservices would never be recommended for adoption on Technology Radar because “not all organizations are microservices-ready.” We noticed there was a tendency to look to adopt microservices simply because it was fashionable.

This doesn’t mean the solution is poor or defective. It’s more that we need to recognize the solution is a tradeoff. At Thoughtworks, we’re fond of saying “it depends” when people ask questions about the value of a certain technology or approach. It’s about how it fits with your organization's needs and, of course, your ability to manage its particular demands. This is an example of essential complexity in tech—it’s something that can’t be removed and which will persist however much you want to get to a level of simplicity you find comfortable.

In terms of microservices, we’ve noticed increasing caution about rushing to embrace this particular architectural approach. Some of our colleagues even suggested the term “monolith revivalists” to describe those turning away from microservices back to monolithic software architecture. While it’s unlikely that the software world is going to make a full return to monoliths, frameworks like Spring Modulith—a framework that helps developers structure code in such a way that it becomes easier to break apart a monolith into smaller microservices when needed—suggest that practitioners are becoming more keenly aware of managing the tradeoffs of different approaches to building and maintaining software.

Supporting practitioners with concepts and tools

Because technical solutions have a habit of reorganizing complexity, we need to carefully attend to how this complexity is managed. Failing to do so can have serious implications for the productivity and effectiveness of engineering teams. At Thoughtworks we have a number of concepts and approaches that we use to manage complexity. Sensible defaults, for instance, are starting points for a project or piece of work. They’re not things that we need to simply embrace as a rule, but instead practices and tools that we collectively recognize are effective for most projects. They give individuals and teams a baseline to make judgements about what might be done differently.

One of the benefits of sensible defaults is that they can guard you against the allure of novelty and hype. As interesting or exciting as a new technology might be, sensible defaults can anchor you in what matters to you. This isn’t to say that new technologies like generative AI shouldn’t be treated with enthusiasm and excitement—some of our teams have been experimenting with these tools and seen impressive results—but instead that adopting new tools needs to be done in a way that properly integrates with the way you work and what you want to achieve. Indeed, there are a wealth of approaches to GenAI, from high profile tools like ChatGPT to self-hosted LLMs. Using GenAI effectively is as much a question of knowing the right way to implement for you and your team as it is about technical expertise.

Interestingly, the tools that can help us manage complexity aren’t necessarily new. One thing that came up in the latest edition of Technology Radar was something called risk-based failure modeling, a process used to understand the impact, likelihood and ability of detecting the various ways that a system can fail. This has origins in failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA), a practice that dates back to the period following World War II, used in complex engineering projects in fields such as aerospace. This signals that there are some challenges that endure; while new solutions will always emerge to combat them, we should also be comfortable looking to the past for tools and techniques.

Learning to live with complexity

McKinsey’s argument that the productivity of development teams can be successfully measured caused a stir across the software engineering landscape. While having the right metrics in place is certainly important, prioritizing productivity in our thinking can cause more problems than it solves when it comes to complex systems and an ever-changing landscape of solutions. Technology Radar called this out with an edition with the theme, “How productive is measuring productivity?”This highlighted the importance of focusing on developer experience with the help of tools like DX DevEx 360. 

Focusing on productivity in the way McKinsey suggests can cause us to mistakenly see coding as the “real” work of software engineering, overlooking things like architectural decisions, tests, security analysis, and performance monitoring. This is risky—organizations that adopt such a view will struggle to see tangible benefits from their digital projects. This is why the key challenge in software today is embracing complexity; not treating it as something to be minimized at all costs but a challenge that requires thoughtfulness in processes, practices, and governance. The key question is whether the industry realizes this.

This content was produced by Thoughtworks. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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