Alexandre Bensimon



When I try to explain what I do to non-technical people, I often fail to go beyond: "Well... when you go on Instagram and click on that button to follow someone, people like me had to program all the stuff happening behind the scenes".

When we learn how to drive a car, we first learn how to use the steering wheel: turn it to the right or the left depending on where you want to go. Then, we learn about the pedals: press this one to speed up and this one to break. In France we still learn to drive a car on a manual transmission so we learn how to use the shift gear and so on. This is the interface between the driver and the car.

A car is a complex machine, but we don't need to understand how the engine and all the other mechanical parts work. We only need to know how to use it. The interface abstracts away the complexity.

Using a service like Uber, we only need a destination. We don't need to know how to drive anymore. The complexity of driving the car still exists, we only use a different interface. Another layer of abstraction.

But more abstraction is not always what we want. With Uber, we cannot drive at the speed we like, or choose the route. We have traded control for simplicity.

This equilibrium is a central theme in software. To make our code easier to reason about, we create our own abstractions. But the hard part is choosing what code to abstract and how to design the interface. Not enough abstraction and we lose readability, too much and we lose flexibility.

When we learn a word in a new language, we first link it with its translation in our native language. As we start to improve, words directly connect to thoughts. We think in the language itself instead of using our main language as a proxy. Only then can we understand some subtle meaning, often lost in translation.

In this way, language is yet another abstraction. We can sometimes express very complex thoughts with simple words. Thinking clearly is being able to dig into the mental layers of language.