When I first heard of Conway’s law, I though it was a geek joke. After years of seeing it play out again and again, I’m realizing that it actually communicates a deep truth about how the world works.
Conway’s law (in my words):
Any organization that creates something is doomed/destined to create something that is a mirror image of its own organizational structure.
I’m doing some consulting work for a small organization that is spread out over two continents. Two continents, about 10 computers, and probably no official full time employees. The fellow who runs it does so out of love, and he hires people to handle issues as they come up. There have to be at least 4 or 5 technical folks with their hands on these machines. Maybe more. Truth is – I don’t know how many there are, because I’ve never met them. I don’t even know most of their names. One fellow I can catch on skype, but I don’t have his phone number.
And the systems of this organization look exactly the same way – a scattering of programs and computers that are cobbled together by a mess of scripts that either don’t interface with each other, or do so in a totally unique and unpredictable way. When something breaks, it’s an archeology exercise to figure out how it was built and what went wrong.
The organization wants to fix the problem by finding ‘a better computer person’ to add to the group. Meanwhile, the rest of the bunch still have their fingers in their part of the mix. If they really wanted to get things shaped up, they’d either hire a serious full time person to take on the whole picture, or at least insist that all the people involved have a regular conference call. Without that, Conway’s law is going to keep us all poking away at a scattered bunch of misaligned things that don’t come together into anything cohesive.