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Avoid Analysis Paralysis by Experimenting

Have you ever been stuck on a problem, not because you didn't have any ideas for how to solve it, but because you had too many? It's a common situation to fall into in software engineering because any given problem will have a multitude of solutions, and each of them boil down to writing and changing the right code, a process that can be quite quick and has a tight feedback loop. It's a much faster process than designing complex hardware systems, like integrated circuits or automobiles, and the turn-around time on an idea can often be measured in minutes to days instead of months to years. Often the programmer is faced with numerous potentially promising solutions at once. With so many choices and fast implementation times, a good way to get out of the analysis paralysis rut is to roll up your sleeves and start experimenting.

Software is flexible and malleable in a way that hardware is not. Software is more like writing or movies or music in that it can be bent, stretched, molded, and rearranged on a whim, so trying out ideas should be the default method of attacking small- to medium-sized problems. Obviously, attacking large problems in software by constantly tearing up and replacing the basic architecture of the code base will inevitably lead to disaster. Those decisions require more forethought and design, but for the day-to-day problems we all have to deal with, experimentation is a great way to discover what works best and keep moving forward.

If you find yourself in a discussion or meeting, debating the best course of action on a development problem, and you start to realize that the combined time of everyone in the room is approaching the time it would take to implement at least two of the options, it's probably better to start spinning up some experiments to prove out a winner instead of continuing to hash out arguments that have no clear answer.

One reason why we may resist experimenting in favor of discussions is that we have a mental block for changing working code in an unfinished project. Even though version control makes it easy to try out ideas and roll them back, it can still become harder and harder to make changes to a project as it matures. The project builds up inertia, and starts to resist change. Scott Berkun has a nice article about how ideas can become too precious, and they start to take on a life of their own:
Being precious means you’re behaving as if the draft, the sketch, the idea you’re working on is the most important thing in the history of the universe. It means you’ve lost perspective and can’t see the work objectively anymore. When you treat a work in progress too preciously, you trade your talents for fears. You become conservative, suppressing the courage required to make the tough choices that will resolve the work's problems and let you finish.
In the case of a software project the precious ideas are the accumulated work on the project that exists in the current state of the code base. To make progress, we have to push against the inertia of the code base and force improvements through experimentation. To push things in a new direction, branch the code and start experimenting with options until one emerges as a clear winner. If there is no clear winner, then you can still pick something from the implemented options and run with it, and you haven't wasted time debating options that didn't have much differentiation anyway.

When you're experimenting, don't be afraid to throw stuff away. It can feel like you're writing a lot of code that will never get used, but the code is not the important part. You're not throwing away work, you're gaining knowledge. The superfluous code is just a byproduct of gaining that knowledge. Over time the knowledge will accumulate and mature into wisdom. You'll be able to make better decisions, sidestep more pitfalls, and create viable solutions faster with the buildup of knowledge from regularly experimenting.

Experimentation turns out to be a useful way to make progress in many fields, some not so obvious. Take mathematics for example. My early impression of advanced mathematics was along the lines of mathematicians standing in front of blackboards, pondering proofs until they had an epiphany, and then writing down the proof in a burst of genius. The reality is quite different. Mathematics does involve plenty of thinking, of course, but it also involves plenty of experimenting with ideas. Often a hard problem must be broken up into pieces or changed into an easier problem to solve first. Lemmas, propositions, and minor theorems need to be built up to help in proving a major theorem, and a lot of the work of mathematics is building these tools to create the final product. If experimentation can work for such an abstract field as mathematics, it can certainly work for software development.

To get better at experimenting, it's important to get comfortable with spinning up an experiment quickly. The faster you can get a programming experiment started, the less friction there will be when you need to run an experiment to make a decision. I'm reminded of when I used to throw pottery (not literally picking up pots and throwing them, but making ceramic pots on a potter's wheel). When throwing pots, the first thing you have to do is center the clay on the wheel so that when the wheel spins at high speeds, the clay doesn't wobble at all. If the clay isn't centered properly, the pot won't stay symmetrical and may very well tear itself apart before you finish it. Much of learning to throw involves learning how to center, and once you can do it well and do it quickly, you can make more and better pots. You can run a lot more throwing experiments with your wheel time, and you more quickly discover what works and doesn't for making beautiful pottery.

The analog in programming is to get good at writing the necessary startup code to get to a basic working program as fast as possible. If you do web development, practice bringing up a new website and connecting it to a database. If you do embedded development, practice starting a new embedded application with tasks, interrupts, and communication interfaces that you use regularly. If you do mobile development, practice creating a new app and hooking up a basic GUI. Normally, you only do these things once at the beginning of a project, so the process isn't always fresh in your mind. If you practice it, then you can do it quickly and run more experiments with new code without having to tear up an existing architecture to do it.

Finally, experimenting with problems in code and trying out solutions will uncover issues that you would have never thought of otherwise. Sometimes a solution will fit right into the existing code base, much better than you thought it would, and can even make the code it interacts with simpler and more elegant. Other times it will require major transformations of other algorithms, data structures, and interfaces that you may not have thought through when the solution was an image in your mind's eye. Experimentation provides useful feedback on those things that you may have missed, and when you experiment with real code, you'll often find that you didn't need the complex, high-performance solution that you thought you did.

The ability to experiment is a useful tool to have in your programmer's toolbox. The results of an experiment are much more convincing than vague arguments when deciding among a set of options. Don't worry about writing code that may be thrown away because the useful work is the knowledge that's gained, and that knowledge can be reused to solve similar problems in the future. Instead, worry about getting faster at running experiments by practicing how to bring up new applications quickly in your environment. Then you can get the definitive answers you need to make progress.