Conway’s Law and the Mythical 17:00 Split

I was at PubConf on Saturday. It was an absolutely terrific event – fast-paced, irreverent, thought-provoking and hugely enjoyable. Huge thanks to Todd Gardner for making it happen, to Liam Westley for advanced detail-wrangling, and to NDC London, Track:js, Red Gate and Zopa for their generous sponsorship. 

Seb delivered a great talk about the Mythical 17:00 Split, which he has now written up on his blog. His talk resonated a lot with me, because I also find a lot of things about workplace culture very strange. I’m lucky enough to work somewhere where I seldom encounter these issues directly, but I know people whose managers genuinely believe that the best way to write software is to do it wearing a suit and tie, at eight’o’clock in the morning, whilst sitting in a crowded office full of hedge fund traders.

But Seb’s write-up post said something that really struck a chord.

“Take working in teams. The best teams are made of people that like working together, and the worst teams I’ve had was when a developer had specific issues with me, to the point of causing a lot of tension”

Now, I’m a big fan of Conway’s Law – over the course of my career, I’ve seen (and built) dozens of software systems that turned out to reflect the communication structures of the organizations that created them. I’ve even given a conference talk at BuildStuff 2015 about Conway’s Law with Mel Conway in the audience – which was great fun, if a little nerve-wracking.

In a nutshell, Conway’s Law says of Seb’s observation regarding teams that if you take a bunch of people who are fundamentally incompatible, and force them to work together, you’ll end up with a system which is a bunch of incompatible components that are being forced to work together. If you want to know whether – and how – your systems are going to fail in production, look at the team dynamic of the people who are building them. If watching those people leaves you feeling calm, reassured and relaxed, then you’re gonna end up with something good. If one person is absolutely dominating the conversations, one component is going to end up dominating the architecture. If there’s two people on the team who won’t speak to each other and end up mediating all their communication through somebody else – guess what? You’re going to end up with a broker in your system that has to manage communication between two components that won’t communicate directly.

If your team hate each other, your product will suck – and in the entire history of humankind, there are only two documented exceptions to this rule. One is Guns’n’Roses “Appetite for Destruction” and the other is “Rumours” by Fleetwood Mac.