hyperbo.la :: Do the Simplest Thing That Could Possibly Work

Do the Simplest Thing That Could Possibly Work

Ryan Lopopolo | August 25, 2023

When working with the tech leads in my group and other senior engineers on cross functional projects, I often find myself saying do the simplest thing that could possibly work to unstick technical debates and requirements gathering sinkholes.

When building out a system, do the simplest thing that could possibly work means:

  • Minimum scaffolding, minimum ceremony, minimal automation.
  • Handle the happy path only.
  • Stub as much as possible.
  • Defer specifying as much behavior as possible.

Do the simplest thing that could possibly work neatly packages up my favorite extreme programming (XP) principles of don't paint yourself into a corner and you aren't gonna need it (YAGNI) while also not being overtly confrontational.

Do the simplest thing that could possibly work communicates the need to shed scope, think incrementally, bias to action instead of over-design, and get product in the hands of the folks who will be using it.

Criss-crossing meandering paths in a garden, uncertain which direction to take, watercolor, mid afternoon.

Webapp and Mobile App Localization

Recently, I leaned in to a cross-functional project which was working on a direct KR of a company level objective: to support global expansion of the business, we sought to localize the web dashboard and mobile apps for the product.

This project involved about 12 engineers, 1 designer, 2 engineering managers, and 1 first-time project lead. The squad had frontend-oriented expertise but little experience with l10n systems and i18n migrations. I was often the only voice in the room advocating for use of the Intl APIs, relying on user agents to communicate locale preferences, and not rolling our own strings for month abbreviations in German.

This combined with the lack of PM support or a PRD led to an explosion in complexity:

  • A backend service was proposed to store per-user individual locale settings such as decimal separator, RTL vs LTR text direction, and date format.
  • A design was completed for a 3-service evented workflow on top of a Retool page and a full-blown Postgres RDS for updating our translation vendor when we added a new locale.
  • The team decided to take localizing marketing campagins into scope.
  • A flow diagram was created for a complex locale defaulting flow which considered device settings, stored user preferences, the user's associated legal entity's preferences, and enterprise settings.

The team spent multiple 2-hour meetings per week debating edge cases in locale selection and rendering looking for consensus in the large group. No code was written for the first 5 weeks of the project.

Do One Thing

To get the team out of the design quagmire and anchored in more concrete deliverables, I gave the team one goal: show me 3 pages with German strings. Within a week, the settings page in both the web and mobile apps was rendering in German, the login page was rendered in the language set by the user's browser, and the entire dashboard had a locale selector to toggle between English and German strings.

What complexity gave way to make this happen?

  • Translation strings were hardcoded into two JSON files. We skipped all pipeline and vendor configuration.
  • The team selected the react-i18next library and minimally wired it up.
  • The Accept-Language header drove localization of the login page where users had not yet authenticated (and thus we didn't have their locale preference available). Locale settings were stored in a flat table with at most one preference per user.
  • The team was forced to contend with (simple) date formatting.

Take on Toil

A very effective strategy for do the simplest thing that could possibly work is to take on toil in lieu of automation.

Rather than build out that evented workflow for orchestrating the translation vendor, a runbook and click ops in the vendor dashboard will suffice, likely for forever. The CI pipeline does not need to be complete; instead, the on-call engineer will download snapshots of the translated locales once per week and manually push a PR.

Toil can take you a surprisingly long way. Stripe had an entire organization (Tech Ops) to manually retry and reconcile payment and ledgering failures. Ocassionally, Citi would respond with a new payout failure code (did you know there are like 6 different codes to indicate the recipeint is deceased?); these failures were manually investigated and added to one of 3 static Hashes in a Ruby source file to remediate.


Do the simplest thing that could possibly work is a mechanism to be incremental and focus scarce engineering resources on the higest leverage deliverable. That can either mean quickly iterating in a 0 to 1 or 1 to 10 context; or it can mean moving on to the next most important unsolved problem.