Complexity is good – or is it bad?

I grew up in a family of engineers.  My father studied electrical engineering in college, but never practiced it because he graduated from college during the Great Depression.  Two of my uncles are engineers, and my older brother preceded me in going to Cornell as an engineering student.

I have always felt that engineering is not only an honorable profession, it also leads to a practical lifestyle that values inquiry, problem-solving and efficient solutions to the challenges in life.  So you may not be surprised to learn that I am a fully qualified lifelong nerd.  I love examining things to discover how they work.  And the more complex the mechanisms, the more interesting they are.

This is where it gets to be a problem.  When I invent something new, like a part of a computer, I revel in the complexity of the thing I’m building.  As long as the complexity serves a purpose, such as actually making the thing do what it’s supposed to do, my brain is tweaked in pleasurable ways when I contemplate the complexity.

If you’ve been reading any of the recent pieces about Steve Jobs, you’ll have understood that part of his brilliance was being able to conceive of simple and easy-to-use products that “just work.”  I worked with Steve in the early days of Apple, and I can verify that it was a challenge being an engineer in a place where the visionary boss kept revising the product based on his latest concept of simple.  Yet even engineers have a principle they repeat to each other to counterbalance their tendency towards complexity – the KISS principle: “Keep it simple, stupid”.

A quote attributed to Einstein says “Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler.”  This teaching admonishes us to simplify our theories, but not so far that they no longer apply to the real world.  Jobs’ vision was to make products that contained complex technology but worked well and intuitively for the common person.  And from that basis, he led the creation of products that have changed the way the world works.

So does this mean that I’m giving up on complex ideas and mechanisms?  Not at all.  The mental contortions I need to undertake to understand complicated things still give me pleasure.  And I believe they keep my mind alive in important ways.  The key to living with such an engineering mind is to keep it from running my life.  I still listen to J.S. Bach’s music with satisfaction at the complexity of the counterpoint and harmonies.  But I also meditate on emptiness to keep the logical brain in check.

The next time you hold a complicated piece of consumer electronics in your hand – such as your mobile phone – take a moment to reflect on its complexity and its simplicity.  Encapsulating one of these in the other is an art.  And to accomplish that encapsulation, you need both engineers and artists.  Long may the engineers and artists work together.

John Levy works with Finance and Operations executives who are sponsors for new IT-based business capabilities.  He helps them to succeed with their projects and to transform their relationship with IT.

Getting business value from every dollar spent in IT is not easy.  You need a guide who is knowledgeable about technology and also speaks the language of business.  John specializes in rapidly getting IT to align with business strategy and to contribute efficiently to the success of the enterprise.

John has been consulting in industry for over 20 years.  His book on management for technology executives, Get Out of the Way, was published in May 2010. 

For more information, please visit , email him at , or call 415 663-1818.


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About John Levy

John Levy, Ph.D. is an expert in computers, software and storage who is available for consulting in patent litigation.

For more information, email him at, or call 415 269-4096.
And check out John's profile on LinkedIn!