September 30, 2016
Software Development Doesn't Scale. Dev Culture DoesFor a couple of decades now, the Standish Group have published an annual "CHAOS" reported, detailing the results of surveys taken by IT managers about the outcomes of IT projects.
One clear trend that emerged - and remains as true today as in 1995 - is that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. The risk of an IT project failing outright rises rapidly with project size and cost. When they reach a certain size - and it's much smaller than you may think - failure is almost guaranteed.
The reality of software development is that, once we get above a dozen or so people working for a year or two on the same product or system, the prognosis does not look good at all.
This is chiefly because - and how many times do we need to say this, folks? - software development does not scale.
If that's true, though, how do big software products come into existence?
The answer lies in city planning. A city is made up of hundreds of thousands of buildings, on thousands of streets, with miles of sewers and underground railways and electrical cabling and lawns and trees and shops and traffic lights and etc etc.
How do such massively complex structures happen? Is a city planned and constructed by a single massive team of architects and builders as a single project with a single set of goals?
No, obviously not. Rome was not built in a day. By the same guys. Reporting to one boss. With a single plan.
Cities appear over many, many decades. The suburbs of London were once, not all that long ago, villages outside London. An organic process of development, undertaken by hundreds of thousands of people and organisations all working towards their own unique goals, and co-operating or compromising when goals aligned or conflicted, produced the sprawling metropolis that is now London.
Trillions of pounds has been spent creating the London of today. Most of that investment is nowhere to be seen any more, having been knocked down (or bombed) and built over many times. You could probably create a "London" for a fraction of the cost in a fraction of the time, if it were possible to coordinate such a feat.
And that's my point: it simply isn't possible to coordinate such a feat, not on that scale. An office complex? Sure. A housing estate? Why not? A new rail line with new train stations running across North London? With a few tens of billions and a few decades, it's do-able.
But those big projects exist right the edge of what is manageable. They invariably go way over budget, and are completed late. If they were much bigger, they'd fail altogether.
Cities are a product of many lifetimes, working towards many goals, with no single clear end goal, and with massive inefficiency.
And yet, somehow, London mostly looks like London. Toronto mostly looks like Toronto. European cities mostly look like European cities. Russian cities mostly look like Russian cities. It all just sort of, kind of, works. A weird conceptual cohesion emerges from the near-chaos.
This is the product of culture. Yes, London has hundreds of thousands of buildings, designed by thousands of people. But those people didn't work in bubbles, completely oblivious to each others' work. They could look at other buildings. Read about their design and their designers. Learn a thousand and one lessons about what worked and what didn't without having to repeat the mistakes that earned that knowledge.
And knowledge is weightless. It travels fast and travels cheaply. Hence, St Petersburg looks like the palaces of Versailles, and that area above Leicester Square looks like 19th century Hong Kong.
Tens of thousands of architects and builders, guided by organising principles plucked from the experience of others who came before.
Likewise, with big software products. Many teams, with many goals, building on top of each other, cooperating when it makes sense, compromising when there are conflicts. But, essentially, each team is doing their own thing for their own reasons. Any attempt to standardise, or impose order from above, fails. Every. Single. Time.
Better to focus on scaling up developer culture, which - those of us who participate in the global dev community can attest - scales beautifully. We have no common goal, no shared boss; but, somehow, I find myself working with the same tools, applying the same practices and principles, as thousands of developers around the world, most of whom I've never met.
Instead of having an overriding architecture for your large system, try to spread shared organising principles, like Simple Design and S.O.L.I.D. It's not a coincidence that hundreds of thousands developers use dependency injection to make external dependencies swappable. We visit the same websites, watch the same screencasts, read the same books. On a 10,000-person programme, your architect isn't the one who sits in the Big Chair at head office drawing UMLL diagrams. Your architect is Uncle Bob. Or Michael Feathers. Or Rebecca Whirfs-Brock. Or Barbara Liskov. Or Steve Freeman. Or even me (a shocking thought!)
But it's true. I probably have more influence over the design of some systems than the people getting paid to design it. And all I did was blog, or record a screencast, or speak at a conference. Culture - in this web age - spreads fast, and scales rapidly. You, too, can use these tools to build bridges between teams, share ideas, and exert tacit influence. You just have to let go of having explicit top-down control.
And that's how you scale software development.
Posted 2 years, 6 months ago on September 30, 2016