Conway’s Law

The Wikipedia community describes Conway’s Law like this; I paraphrase it like this: if the architecture of the system and the architecture of the organization are at odds, the architecture of the organization wins. The organizational divides are going to drive the true seams in the system.

The architecture of the system gets cemented in the forms of the teams that develop it. The system decomposition drives team ownership. Then the organizational lines of communication become reflected in the interfaces, with cleaner, better preserved interfaces along the lines where organizational distance increases. In small, co-located teams, short-cuts can be taken to optimize within the team. But each short-cut that introduces a dependency is like rebar in concrete–structurally efficient, but rigid. If the environment changes, demanding new lines to be drawn, the cost becomes clear. The architecture is hard to adapt.

One could say this is part of the innovator’s dilemma. Sustaining innovations, that is, incremental improvements within the cast of the architecture, are what the organization is adapted to be good at. But when a breakthrough innovation demands a new architecture, a new organization (unencumbered by power trees that grew up around the old architecture) tends to be more fleet in bringing the innovation to market.

Another implication of Conway’s Law is that if we have managers deciding on teams (what they’ll do, who will be on them, and how they will relate), and deciding which services will be built, by which teams, we implicitly have managers deciding on the system architecture. They determine system chunks (services or components) and capabilities by deciding who will build what.

Conway’s Law also kicks in if we take an initial guess at the system decomposition (a first-cut conceptual architecture), allocate subsystems to teams, and sally forth–the team boundaries will tend to become boundaries within the system. Anything else will be a feat of architectural heroics; hard to accomplish, when architectural heroics have to compete with schedule heroics driven by the steady beat of integration clocks. Yet, architecture is where we address cross-cutting concerns, or at least those that needs-must be addressed with a system perspective so that when it comes time to compose the system it will have the properties stakeholders care about, rather than emergent properties that may or may not suffice.

Roles are defined by their responsibilities and associated decisions. Architect is a role. Any person may play one or more roles. That is, the architect role may be shared among a group of people (as in many agile project teams), or one person may hold more than one role (as in many small teams, especially in startups).  This may be overt and declared. And it may be the result of decisions that are actually effected. If management decisions determine the architecture of the system, they are in effect its architects. If developers determine the architectural decisions, they are in effect its architects.

“Duh!” you might well be saying. Yes, a lot of what is absolutely common sense when it is put plainly, is so obtuse in the face of perplexifying reality. Simply witness all the heated arguments and misunderstandings you get around the topic of the role of the architect.

But what does it mean? Architecture needs to happen across the interfaces, and this also means across the system/organization interfaces. It means that system architects (who we call architects) and business/organization architects (who we call managers) should not work as if one has no impact on the other.

Other references:

Why do we need software architecture (how architecture serves organizational and technical purposes)

Who needs carrots anyway? (about the iron triangle and the interface between management and architects)

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