On triviality

Just now I read a blog post by a programmer whose premise was that it would be “almost trivial” to do something — and proceeded to roll my eyes.

However, it then occurred to me to interrogate my reaction a little. Why u so cranky, Galen?

On the one hand, the technical task in question, while certainly not trivial in the sense that it would take an inexperienced programmer just a couple minutes to come up with a solution, is in fact straightforward enough. Writing new software to do the task would require no complex math — or even any math beyond arithmetic. It could reasonably be done in a variety of commonly known languages, and there are several open source projects in the problem space that could be used to either build on or crib from. There are quite a few potential users of the new software, many of who could contribute code and testing, and the use cases are generally well understood.

On the other hand (and one of the reasons why I rolled my eyes), the relative ease of writing the software masks, if not the complexity of implementing it, the effort that would be required to do so. The problem domain would not be well served by a thrown-over-the-wall solution; it would take continual work to ensure that configurations would continue to work and that (more importantly) the software would be as invisible as possible to end users. Sure, the problem domain is in crying need of a competitor to the current bad-but-good-enough tool, but new software is only the beginning.

Why? Some things that are not trivial, even if the coding is:

  • Documentation, particularly on how to switch from BadButGoodEnough.
  • Community-building, with all the emotional labor entailed therein.

On the gripping hand: I nonetheless can’t completely dismiss appeals to triviality. Yes, calling something trivial can overlook the non-coding working required to make good software actually succeed. It can sometimes hide a lack of understanding of the problem domain; it can also set the coder against the user when the user points out complications that would interfere with ease of coding. The phrase “trivial problem” can also be a great way to ratchet up folks’ imposter syndrome.

But, perhaps, it can also encourage somebody to take up the work: if a problem is trivial, maybe I can tackle it. Maybe you can too. Maybe coming up with an alternative to BadButGoodEnoughProgram is within reach.

How can we better talk about such problems — to encourage folks to both acknowledge that often the code is only the beginning, while not loading folks down with so many caveats and considerations that only the more privileged among us feel empowered to make the attempt to tackle the problem?

CC BY-SA 4.0 On triviality by Galen Charlton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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