Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Saturday, September 12, 2020

The manifesto for anarchic software development

Go on, read the manifesto again. You’ll see that it’s a manifesto for anarchism, for people coming together and contributing equally toward solving problems. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

The best architectures, requirements, and designs
emerge from self-organizing teams.

While new to software developers in the beginning of this millennium, this would not have been news to architects who noticed the same thing in 1962. A digression: this was more than a decade before architects made their other big contribution to software engineering, the design pattern. The RIBA report noticed two organisations of teams:

One was characterised by a procedure which began by the invention of a building shape and was followed by a moulding of the client’s needs to fit inside this three-dimensional preconception. The other began with an attempt to understand, fully the needs of the people who were to use the building around which, when they were clarified, the building would be fitted.

There were trade-offs between these styles, but the writers of the RIBA report clearly found some reason “to value individuals and interactions over processes and tools”:

The work takes longer and is often unprofitable to the architect, although the client may end up with a much cheaper building put up more quickly than he had expected. Many offices working in this way had found themselves better suited by a dispersed type of work organisation which can promote an informal atmosphere of free-flowing ideas.

Staff retention was higher in the dispersed culture, even though the self-organising nature of the teams meant that sometimes the senior architect was not the project lead, but found themselves reporting to a junior because ideas trumped length of tenure.

This description of self-organising teams in architecture makes me realise that I haven’t knowingly experienced a self-organising team in software, even when working on a team that claimed self-organisation. The idea is prevalent in software of a “platform shop”: a company that builds Rails websites, or Java micro services, or Swift native apps. This is software’s equivalent of beginning “by the invention of a building shape”, only more so: begin by the application of an existing building shape, no invention required.

As the RIBA report notes, this approach “clearly goes with rather autocratic forms of control”. By centralising the technology in the solution design, people can argue that experience with that technology stack (and more specifically, with the way it’s applied in this organisation) is the measure of success, and use that to impose or reinforce a hierarchy.

Clearly, length of tenure becomes a proxy measure for authority in such an organisation. The longer you’ve been in the company, the more experience you have contorting their one chosen solution to attempt to address a client’s problem. Never mind that there are other skills needed in designing a software product (not least of which is actually understanding the problem), and never mind that this “experience” is in repeated application of an unsuitable template: one year of experience ten times over, rather than ten years of experience.

posted by Graham at 19:42  

1 Comment »

  1. […] The Manifesto for Anarchic Software Development I noted that one of the agile manifesto principles is for self-organising teams, and that those […]

    Pingback by Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers » Self-organising teams — 2020-09-15 @ 08:07

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