Keep it Simple, Stupid


Growing up in the Bay Area, I used to go to the Zeum in San Francisco with my parents. Since rebranded as the Children’s Creativity Museum, it’s a space in Yerba Buena Gardens that hosts exhibits catering to kids. By far, my favorite activity was the claymation where I’d get to design characters and shoot short scenes. I figured out how to make a model jump using wires and add a muzzle flash with one frame of red clay.

Today, I don’t remember many specifics but there was one activity that stood out. The goal was to build a RC car using various parts: motors, wheels, plastic connectors, etc. Once the car was built, it’d take an elevator to the net above where you’d try to drive it around. Like any good kid I built the coolest car I could, adding wings and decorative armor. It was a mess and could barely move.

At this point my dad, who was notoriously patient with these kind of things, stepped in to help. We scraped my original design for the most bare-bones car that would run. Four wheels and a motor. It worked remarkably well and after running around the course a few times I got to add the wings back on.

As I’ve grown, it’s surprising how often this lesson keeps popping up. The best recipes and drinks don’t necessarily have flair, they’re composed with a few, well-chosen ingredients. Programming is about building interfaces that make complex things intuitive. Giving users straight forward designs that are easy to use and hard to misuse. Since that day with the RC cars, I’ve also learned that simple is hard. It represents the experience that’s taught you “these are the things that are necessary, and these are the things that are extra.”

This holiday season marks thirteen years since my dad passed. Thirteen years is a funny amount of time. It’s not a round number and I’ve personally been past the grieving phase for a while now.

I’ve started to see more of these lessons that I attribute to my dad. Taking the same career path, I even finding things in his study that I relate to. Operating system and database textbooks or a copy of The Mythical Man Month. But like the Zeum, it’s hard to remember specifics. As I get older those memories start to fade, or might even be things that I made up along the way.

When you lose someone they often become what you need them to be. A bastion of good or a lesson that you take to heart. I found what you really lose is the ability for that person to surprise you. To say something that you wouldn’t expect, to piss you off, to be an individual with all of their faults and flaws. “Keep it simple, stupid” is a mantra that I hold dear, but it feels too simple to say that I understand it like my dad did, or that he was the perfect example of it. I’ll never know, and that’s what’s been lost.

I’m thankful for the people in my life because they surprise me. Because they’re different in ways that I’ll never completely grasp, but I get to try to learn a little more every day.

Legacies are messy. You try to never forget those that are gone, but you do in little ways. Thirteen years on, I want to celebrate what makes that so sad. People are unique and dynamic, and that’s hard to replace with lessons and sayings.