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Divide & Conquer


2024-06-07 | 1 views

development productivity

If you attended school this will sound very familiar to you. You learn about something new that sounds so complex that you cannot even imagine how you will ever wrap your head around it. But once you start slowly learning all the details you realise that the complex topic, is not that complex once you learn all the details. This is true for knowledge, computer systems and almost all things.

Being able to break big problems down into smaller sub problems is very important to start solving them and breaking down how a complex system of systems work in each component is crucial to understanding what environment you are working in.


Facing a problem which is difficult to understand can be frustrating and instill a sense of shame. This is very normal and most people have this feeling. It is important to know this because it makes it easier to accept that you do not understand it and that it is okay to not understand something. Because this frustration will make it more difficult. Once you have this frustration and shame tackled by accepting that it is a normal thing, the steps of breaking up the problem into the parts you do and do not understand can begin. By identifying the parts you do not understand you can ask targeted questions or read articles to fill in the gaps.

Losing overview

The reason that problems might seem complex is that the overview of all simple parts is not clear. Some information is missing which makes the whole seem difficult to understand. The best way to prevent this is to not try to understand the whole problem but to break it up into parts and try to understand each part.

For instance trying to understand how authentication and authorisation of a user works needs many steps, but once you break it up into the steps of sending login credentials, getting the user with the same username from the database, comparing the result of hashing the sent password and the password hash stored in the database and based on this authenticate or not. It becomes quite clear per step what is going on. This is of course just a simple example of breaking something that can be considered complex into small easy to understand parts, but I have found that almost all things can be approached like this.

For bigger problems where the overview is hard to grasp it helps to map it out. I love drawing simple diagrams to get a new visual representation of what the thing is I am trying to solve, and very often after I am done drawing it, it already seems very clear! Of course not every problem requires a diagram to be drawn, but the step of creating a visual representation of the problem helps to get this overview, even a simple drawing using a pencil and paper helps.

How to go from complex to simple

Sometimes it is hard to find where to start when breaking down a problem. In these instances it's good to start at the part of the problem that is understood and expanding this part. Most of the time while writing the logic for the parts that you do understand, the other parts that come before and after also become clear.

If this is not possible, you can try to find a way to break up the problem into sub problems which can be more easily solved. I know that sometimes it feels like this is not possible, but often when a problem is analysed enough ways to split the problem will appear.

Within programming all programs can be boiled down to a large systems of very basic operations. The complexity comes from the combination of many of these operations. Understanding this and not losing hope when something seems too complex is very important. It happens to all of us that something seems impossible to understand. The solutions that need to be created to fix a problem are also built on combining basic operations to create basic methods to create more and more complexity.


We have all experienced the thought that we will never understand a concept or architecture. It is a normal feeling. The most important thing is to keep your head cool and slowly start breaking up the problem by creating a nice overview of the problem or splitting it up into nice sub problems which can be tackled. When combining these steps almost all problems can be fixed!

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