Elegant and practical solutions

There are two ways in which you can tie a shoelace – one is the “ordinary method”, where you explicitly make the loops around both ends of the lace before tying together to form a bow. The other is the “elegant method” where you only make one loop explicitly, but tie with such great skill that the bow automatically gets formed.

I have never learnt to tie my shoelaces in the latter manner – I suspect my father didn’t know it either, because of which it wasn’t passed on to me. Metaphorically, however, I like to implement such solutions in other aspects.

Having been educated in mathematics, I’m a sucker for “elegant solutions”. I look down upon brute force solutions, which is why I might sometimes spend half an hour writing a script to accomplish a repetitive task that might have otherwise taken 15 minutes. Over the long run, I believe, this elegance will pay off, in terms of scaling easier.

And I suspect I’m not alone in this love for elegance. If the world were only about efficiency, brute force would prevail. That we appreciate things like poetry and music and art and what not means that there is some preference for elegance. And that extends to business solutions as well.

While going for elegance is a useful heuristic, sometimes it can lead to missing the woods for the trees (or missing the random forests for the decision trees if you may will). For there are situations that simply don’t, or won’t, scale, and where elegance will send you on a wild goose chase while a little fighter work will get the job done.

I got reminded of this sometime last week when my wife asked me for some Excel help in some work she was doing. Now, there was a recent article in WSJ which claimed that the “first rule of Microsoft Excel is that you shouldn’t let people know you’re good at it”. However, having taught a university course on spreadsheet modelling, there is no place to hide for me, and people keep coming to me for Excel help (though it helps I don’t work in an office).

So the problem wasn’t a simple one, and I dug around for about half an hour without a solution in sight. And then my wife happened to casually mention that this was a one-time thing. That she had to solve this problem once but didn’t expect to come across it again, so “a little manual work” won’t hurt.

And the problem was solved in two minutes – a minor variation of the requirement was only one formula away (did you know that the latest versions of Excel for Windows offer a “count distinct” function in pivot tables?). Five minutes of fighter work by the wife after that completely solved the problem.

Most data scientists (now that I’m not one!) ┬átypically work in production environments, where the result of their analysis is expressed in code that is run on a repeated basis. This means that data scientists are typically tuned to finding elegant solutions since any manual intervention means that the code is not production-able and scalable.

This can mean finding complicated workarounds in order to “pull the bow of the shoelaces” in order to avoid that little bit of manual effort at the end, so that the whole thing can be automated. And these habits can extend to the occasional work that is not needed to be repeatable and scalable.

And so you have teams spending an inordinate amount of time finding elegant solutions for problems for which easy but non-scalable “solutions exist”.

Elegance is a hard quality to shake off, even when it only hinders you.

I’ll close with a fairytale – a deer looks at its reflection and admires its beautiful anchors and admonishes its own ugly legs. Lion arrives, the ugly legs help the deer run fast, but the beautiful antlers get stuck in a low tree, and the lion catches up.