The Law as Limitation

Normally Conway’s Law is viewed as a limitation, especially from the perspective of software development. Let us assume that a project is modularized according to technical aspects (see Figure 3.2). All developers with a UI focus are grouped into one team, the developers with backend focus are put into a second team, and data bank experts make up the third team. This distribution has the advantage that all three teams consist of experts for the respective technology. This makes it easy and transparent to create this type of organization. Moreover, this distribution also appears logical. Team members can easily support each other, and technical exchange is also facilitated.

Technical Project Distribution

Figure 3.2 Technical Project Distribution

According to Conway’s Law, it follows from such a distribution that the three teams will implement three technical layers: a UI, a backend, and a database. The chosen distribution corresponds to the organization, which is in fact sensibly built. However, this distribution has a decisive disadvantage: a typical feature requires changes to UI, backend, and database. The UI has to render the new features for the clients, the backend has to implement the logic, and the database has to create structures for the storage of the respective data. This results in the following disadvantages:

  • • The person wishing to have a feature implemented has to talk to all three teams.
  • • The teams have to coordinate their work and create new interfaces.
  • • The work of the different teams has to be coordinated in a manner that ensures that their efforts temporally fit together. The backend, for instance, cannot really work without getting input from the database, and the UI cannot work without input from the backend.
  • • When the teams work in sprints, these dependencies cause time delays: The database team generates in its first sprint the necessary changes, within the second sprint the backend team implements the logic, and in the third sprint the UI is dealt with. Therefore, it takes three sprints to implement a single feature.

In the end this approach creates a large number of dependencies as well as a high communication and coordination overhead. Thus this type of organization does not make much sense if the main goal is to implement new features as rapidly as possible.

Many teams following this approach do not realize its impact on architecture and do not consider this aspect further. This type of organization focuses instead on the notion that developers with similar skills should be grouped together within the organization. This organization becomes an obstacle to a design driven by the domain like microservices, whose development is not compatible with the division of teams into technical layers.

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