Jim Bird

About Jim Bird

Jim is an experienced CTO, software development manager and project manager, who has worked on high-performance, high-reliability mission-critical systems for many years, as well as building software development tools. His current interests include scaling Lean and Agile software development methodologies, software security and software assurance.

Should you care about Conway’s Law?

Conway’s Law says that

“organizations which design systems (in the broad sense used here) are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” [emphasis mine]

This was an assertion made in the 1960s based on a small study which has now become a truism in software development (it’s fascinating how much of what we do and think today is based on data that is 50 or more years old). There are lots of questions to ask about Conway’s Law. Should we believe it – is there evidence to support it? How important is the influence of the structure of the team that designed and built the system compared to the structure of the team that continued to change and maintain it for several years – are initial decisions more or less important? What happens as the organization structure changes over time – are these changes reflected in the structure of the code? What organization structures result in better code, or is it better to have no organization structure at all?

Conway’s Law and Collective Code Ownership

Conway’s Law is sometimes used as an argument for a “Whole Team” approach and “Collective Code Ownership” in Agile development. The position taken is that systems that are designed by teams structured around different specializations are of lower quality (because they are artificially constrained) than systems built by teams of “specialized generalists” or “generalizing specialists” who share responsibilities and the code (in small Scrum teams for example).

Communications Structure and Seams

First it is important to understand that the argument in Conway’s Law is not necessarily about how organizations are structured. It is about how people inside an organization communicate with each other – whether and how they talk to each other and share information, the freedom and frequency and form, is communication low-bandwidth and formal/structured, or high-bandwidth and informal. It’s about the “social structure” of an organization.

There are natural seams that occur in any application architecture, as part of decomposition and assignment of responsibilities (which is what application architecture is all about). Client and server separation (UI and UX work is quite different from what needs to be done on the server, and is often done with completely different technology), API boundaries with outside systems, data management, reporting, transaction management, workflow. Different kinds of problems that require different skills to solve them.

The useful argument that Conway’s Law makes is that unnatural seams, unnecessary complexity, misunderstandings and disconnects will appear in the system where people don’t communicate with each other effectively.

Conway’s Corollary

Much more interesting is what Conway’s Law means to how you should structure your development organization. This is Conway’s Corollary: “A software system whose structure closely matches its organization’s communication structure works better (defined broadly) than a subsystem who structure differs from its organization’s communication structure.” “Better” means higher productivity for the people developing and maintaining the system, through more efficient communication and coordination, and higher quality.

In Making Software, Christian Bird at Microsoft Research (no relation) explains how important it is that an organization’s “social structure” mirrors the architecture of the system that they are building or working on. He walks through a study on the relationship between development team organization structure and post-release defects, in this case the organization that built Microsoft Windows Vista. This was a very large project, with thousands of developers, working on tens of millions of LOC. The study found that organization structure was a better indicator of software quality than any attributes of the software itself. The more complex the organization, the more coordination required, the more chances for bugs (obvious, but worth verifying). What is most important is “geographic and structural congruence” – work that is related should be done by people who are working closely together (also obvious, and now we have data to prove it).

Conway’s Corollary and Collective Code Ownership

Conway’s Corollary argues against the “Collective Code Ownership” principle in XP where everyone can and should work on any part of the code at any time. The Microsoft study found that where developers from different parts of the organization worked on the same code, there were more bugs. It was better to have a team own a piece of code, or at the very least act as a gatekeeper and review all changes. Work is best done by the people (or person) who understand the code the most.

Making Organizational Decisions

A second study of 5 OSS projects was also interesting, because it showed that even in Open Source projects, people naturally form teams to work together on logically related parts of a code base.

The lessons from Conway’s Corollary are that you should delay making decisions on organization until you understand the architectural relationships in a system; and that you need to reorganize the team to fit as the architecture changes over time. Dan Pritchett even suggests that that if you want to change the architectural structure of a system, you should start by changing the organization structure of the team to fit the target design – forcing the team to work togeter to “draw the new architecture out of the code”.

Conway’s Law is less important and meaningful than people believe. Applying the argument to small teams, especially co-located Agile teams where people are all working closely together and talking constantly, is effectively irrelevant.

Conway’s Corollary however is valuable, especially for large, distributed development organizations. It’s important for managers to ensure that the structure of the team is aligned with the architectural structure of the system – the way it is today, or the way you want it to be.

Reference: Should you care about Conway’s Law? from our JCG partner Jim Bird at the Building Real Software blog.

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