Pareto Optimality and software development
Some may want to skip to examples of considering pareto optimality in software development
In brief, Pareto optimal solution is defined as a set of ’non-inferior’ solutions in the objective space defining a boundary beyond which none of the objectives can be improved without sacrificing at least one of the other objectives - https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/pareto-optimality
In the context of software development, you’ll frequently hear about tradeoffs such as the adage:
“Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick two.” - Larry Wall
As well as adages or approaches such as:
This leads one of the major cognitive biases in software development where people speak of tradeoffs without establishing they are Pareto Optimal, and wrongly arriving at the conclusion “nothing more can be done without a huge effort”.
side note: technical focus to sidestep discussion of economic/ethical forces
A quick but important side-note that for now, I’ll be focusing on the deserved blame of more privileged and experienced technical decision makers to side-step the many economic and ethical issues that play into this. Of course, even those technical decision makers are beholden to even higher ups and various perverse organizational incentives. Even still, my experience has shown they usually have significant leeway to affect technological quality and culture that surrounds the context of why I talk of Pareto Optimality and software development together.
So what is Pareto Optimality?
What is it?
So uhh… yeah… what exactly was Pareto Optimality again? Drawing from the original quote that got me thinking about pareto optimality and software development we get the quote:
in short, Pareto-optimal means that if you are optimizing between two quantities, you can not increase one without decreasing the other. You can draw a boundary between “all of X, none of Y” and “none of X, all of Y” that has certain characteristics…
And then making things a little more concrete and tying into how not considering Pareto Optimality is a major cognitive biases in software development:
… one very common cognitive mistake people in general make is to speak of a “tradeoff” between X and Y without taking the time to first establish that they are Pareto optimal, because if you’re not yet Pareto optimal, that mean that you can in fact have more of X without having less of Y yet, and constraining the discussion to “tradeoffs” is introducing a false premise.
Security vs Convenience phone lockscreen example
And as an example for “security vs convenience” you could imagine:
- I have a pattern on my phone lockscreen for good security with low cost to convenience
- I have an 8 digit pin on my phone lockscreen for better security at a higher cost of convenience
- I have neither a pin nor pattern on my lockscreen for convenience
Then with that context, reflect upon this quote:
A real world example is “security vs. convenience”; the vast bulk of real-world situations in which we putatively have this conversation, we could in fact have more of either without affecting the other, because we should be so lucky as to be on the Pareto optimality line.
Bob likes convienence, not Pareto Optimality
With just the phone lockscreen example, we can’t quite give a good example. Let’s broaden to phone security and construct a dialogue between two people talking about phone security:
Jill: Bob, you should enable automatic updates for better security. Bob: I prefer convenience to security, that’s why I neither have a lock screen nor have automatic updates enabled.
Here Bob has ignored Pareto Optimality for the context of phone security and convenience because he could enable automatic updates at no (well little) cost to convenience and keep using his phone without a lockscreen.
Or filling in
Y from the earlier quote:
common cognitive mistake people in general make is to speak of a “tradeoff” between X and Y without taking the time to first establish that they are Pareto optimal, because if you’re not yet Pareto optimal, that mean that you can in fact have more of X without having less of Y yet, and constraining the discussion to “tradeoffs” is introducing a false premise.
common cognitive mistake people in general make is to speak of a “tradeoff” between
Conveniencewithout taking the time to first establish that they are Pareto optimal, because if you’re not yet Pareto optimal, that means that you can in fact have more of
Securitywithout having less of
Convenienceyet, and constraining the discussion to “tradeoffs” is introducing a false premise.