Conway’s law

During my work as a Configuration Manager / DevOps for large web projects, I have watched companies disregard Conway’s Law and fail miserably. Such failure then often manifested itself in significant budget overruns and missed deadlines.

The internal infrastructure in the project collaboration was exactly modeled on the internal organizational structures and all experiences and established standards were ‘bent’ to fit the internal organization. This resulted in problems that made the CI/CD pipelines particularly cumbersome and resulted in long execution times. But also adjustments could only be made with a lot of effort. Instead of simplifying existing processes and aligning them with established standards, excuses were made to leave everything as it was before. Let’s take a look at what Conway’s Law is and why we should know it.

The US American researcher and programmer Melvin E. Conway received his doctorate from Case Western Reserve University in 1961. His area of expertise is programming languages and compiler design.

In 1967, he submitted to The Harvard Business Review his paper “How Do Committees Invent?” and was rejected. The reason given was that his thesis was not substantiated. However, Datamation, the largest IT magazine at the time, accepted his article and published it in April 1968. And this paper has since been widely cited. The core statement is:

Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.

Conway, Melvin E. “How do Committees Invent?” 1968, Datamation, vol. 14, num. 4, pp. 28–31

When Fred Brooks cited the essay in his legendary 1975 book, The Mythical Man-Month, he called this key statement Conway’s Law. Brooks recognized the connection between Conway’s Law and management theory. In this regard, we find the following example in the article:

Because the design which occurs first is almost never the best possible, the prevailing system concept may need to change. Therefore, flexibility of organization is important to effective design.

The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering

An often-cited example of an “ideal” team size in terms of Conway’s Law is Amazon’s two-pizza rule, which states that individual project teams should have no more members than two pizzas can fill in one meeting. The most important factor to consider in team alignment, however, is the ability to work across teams and not live in silos.

Conway’s Law was not intended as a joke or Zen koan, but is a valid sociological observation. Take a look at structures from government agencies and their digital implementation. But also processes found in large corporations have been emulated by software systems. Such applications are considered very cumbersome and complicated, so that they find little acceptance among users and they prefer to fall back on alternatives. Unfortunately, it is often impossible to simplify processes in large organizational structures for politically motivated reasons.

Among other things, there is a detailed article by Martin Fowler, who deals explicitly with software architectures and elaborates the importance of the coupling of objects and modules.The communication of the developers among themselves plays a substantial role, in order to obtain best possible results. This circumstance over the importance of communication was taken up also by the agile software development and converted as essential point.Especially when distributed teams work on a joint project, the time difference is a limiting factor in team communication.This must then be designed particularly efficiently.

In 2010, Jonny Leroy and Matt Simons coined the term Inverse Conway Maneuver in the article “Dealing with creaky legacy platforms”:

Conway’s Law … can be summarized as “Dysfunctional organizations tend to create dysfunctional applications.” To paraphrase Einstein, you can’t fix a problem from within the same mindset that created it, so it is often worth investigating whether restructuring your organization or team would prevent the new application from displaying all the same structural dysfunctions as the original. In what could be termed an “inverse Conway maneuver,” you may want to begin by breaking down silos that constrain the team’s ability to collaborate effectively.

Since the 2010s, a new architectural style has entered the software industry. The so-called microservices, which are created by small agile teams. The most important criterion of a microservice compared to a modular monolith is that a microservice can be seen as an independently viable module or subsystem. On the one hand, this allows the microservice to be reused in other applications. On the other hand, there is a strong encapsulation of the functional domain, which opens up a very high flexibility for adaptations.

However, Conway’s law can be applied to many other areas and is not exclusively limited to the software industry. This is what makes the work so valuable.

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