Is smarter always better in the world of coding? A lively Quora discussion among experienced programmers is challenging this idea. Many in the tech community are starting to question the value of overly complex programming, arguing that it can cause more problems than it solves.

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Key Takeaways

  • Programmers from various backgrounds agree that while coding requires creativity and sophistication, simplicity often outweighs cleverness.
  • There is a crucial distinction between complex and complicated code. Complex code, characterized by its multi-layered and sophisticated structure, can still be efficient and manageable. In contrast, complicated code tends to be convoluted and difficult to understand, often leading to maintenance and functionality challenges.
  • Emphasizing the 80/20 rule of software lifecycles, where 80% of a code’s life is spent in maintenance and only 20% in writing, highlights the critical role of maintenance in programming.

The art of programming often walks a tightrope between innovation and overcomplication. Coding is fundamentally about solving problems creatively and efficiently, yet still, a growing segment of the tech community is voicing concerns about the trend of favoring overly complex or “clever” programming solutions. This issue strikes at the heart of software development, as it raises fundamental questions about what constitutes effective coding in an era where technology is becoming increasingly integral to our daily lives. The debate over the potential drawbacks of overly intricate coding methods is not just a matter of professional interest; it has significant implications for the accessibility, maintainability, and functionality of software systems that millions rely on every day.

Complex Doesn’t Always Mean Complicated and Vice Versa

Understanding the subtle yet significant difference between complex and complicated code is more than just a technicality—it’s a necessity. Complex code, while layered and multifaceted, can be a sign of sophisticated problem-solving. It’s like a well-orchestrated symphony where each part plays a crucial role, and despite the multitude of elements, everything works in harmony. This type of coding, often involving models, data sources, and user interfaces, thrives on its logical structure and clarity, making it manageable and efficient.

Complicated code, however, is a different beast. It’s the kind of code that makes even seasoned programmers scratch their heads. It’s akin to walking through a labyrinth with no clear exit in sight. Take, for example, the creation of a least-recently-used (LRU) cache using a dictionary and a linked list. While it serves a functional purpose, the complexity lies not in its necessity but in its convoluted execution. This is where code becomes more of a puzzle than a tool, challenging to understand and maintain.

The real art in programming is not just about managing complexity, but in doing so without falling into the trap of complication. It’s about breaking down labyrinthine code into well-named methods and classes, transforming a tangled mess into an organized, coherent system.

What Programmers Say About Overly Clevel Fellow Coders

Overly Complex Programming Can Play Havoc with Many Coders, Professionals Confirm

The debate over the value of ‘clever’ coding in software development is as old as the industry itself. Programmers from various backgrounds have weighed in on this topic, sharing insights that reflect a consensus: simplicity often trumps cleverness. One programmer points out the two Laws of Optimization: “Don’t do it” and “(For experts only) Don’t do it now,” highlighting that code is maintained far longer than it’s written. The programmer elaborates,

“Every piece of clever code has to be able to justify its existence by clear and persuasive evidence.”

Another coder, Wes Winn, an Android Engineer, echoes this sentiment, emphasizing the importance of readability and maintenance. Winn cites principles like

“You Aren’t Gonna Need It” (YAGNI) and “Keep It Simple, Stupid” (KISS). Simple, readable, straightforward code is going to be a big help.”

Wes Winn

He points out that while there are instances where complex problems necessitate equally complex solutions, more often than not, adhering to best practices in the simplest manner is the most effective strategy. Wes acknowledges that there are exceptions, where even a minor performance improvement might justify added complexity, especially in cases of large-scale applications. Winn also delves into the maintenance aspect of software development, referring to the 80/20 rule of software lifecycles, where 20% of a code’s life is spent being written, and a staggering 80% is spent on maintenance. He highlights the practical reality that code often doesn’t exist in isolation. Even when it seems like a piece of code is self-contained and won’t require future alterations, the interconnected nature of software means that changes in one part can necessitate an understanding of the entire system, thus complicating maintenance efforts.

Terry Lambert, a Senior Software Engineer, brings a different perspective, noting that while cleverness can be necessary and even genius, it often leads to fragility in code. “Clever code is fragile code,” he remarks, cautioning against writing code that others cannot easily understand or maintain.

Brian Kernighan’s famous quote encapsulates this sentiment:

“Debugging is twice as hard as writing the code in the first place. Therefore, if you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it.”

Brian W. Kernighan

This quote highlights the dilemma programmers face: striving for simplicity, yet needing to be clever enough to achieve it without making the code come across as overly complex.


In these discussions, a recurring theme emerges the balance between being clever and maintaining clarity and simplicity. While there’s an appreciation for ingenious solutions, the practicality of code maintenance, readability, and the collaborative nature of programming often dictate a preference for simpler, more straightforward approaches. As these programmers suggest, the true art lies not in showcasing cleverness, but in crafting code that’s both elegant in its simplicity and robust in its functionality.


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