It's a Trap! How Abstractions Have Failed Us.

Wednesday, December 09, 2020 - 3:00 pm3:45 pm

André Henry


What does Kubernetes, React, a compiler, or even the OS Kernel all have in common?

They're all a form of abstraction! You might be asking yourself is that a bad thing? If so, why?

Our systems are too complex and we keep building layers of abstractions in a vain effort to simplify these same systems. We start out with a simple problem and somehow end up with a solution that requires more investment and maintenance than the original problem itself.

Why do we do this? You can argue that our industry incentivizes this because you can use it to get that new job, get a raise, or gain that 31337 clout. You can argue that we do this to ourselves by conflating simplicity with lack of intelligence (or experience). Either way, we're paying a cost for all this abstraction:

  • The abstraction has taken on a life of its own and takes you with it
  • We lose proficiency with the foundation
  • We lose sight of the original problem
  • We don't forget about the people this is supposed to help
  • We keep using and modifying the abstraction even if it is no longer appropriate

Not all abstractions are bad, we just don don't know where to stop. So what do we do about it? We can't reasonably expect never to use an abstraction again. In my session, I'd like to share my experience with conquering the never-ending chase down the abstraction rabbit hole and to hear your stories and solutions too.

André Henry[node:field-speakers-institution]

André Henry is a systems engineer at Venmo and a lifelong hacker. If you ever wondered who would buy a supercomputer off eBay, you've thought about him. André lives at the intersection of lasers, cats, and tech. You can find him at a bookstore or conference home, with his cat Zuko, always learning and sharing.

Open Access Media

USENIX is committed to Open Access to the research presented at our events. Papers and proceedings are freely available to everyone once the event begins. Any video, audio, and/or slides that are posted after the event are also free and open to everyone. Support USENIX and our commitment to Open Access.

@inproceedings {262259,
author = {Andr{\'e} Henry},
title = {It{\textquoteright}s a Trap! How Abstractions Have Failed Us.},
booktitle = {SREcon20 Americas (SREcon20 Americas)},
year = {2020},
url = {},
publisher = {{USENIX} Association},
month = dec,

Presentation Video