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@rixx@chaos.social · @rixxtr

Conway Spotting


Do you know Conway’s Law? Wikipedia cites it thusly:

Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization's communication structure.

Conway’s Law will be most visible to you in your own professional context and in your communities. You’ll know all about the quiet resentment, local politics, and personal animosities. The slightly broken outcomes make for hilarious in-jokes and the occasional teachable moment. But you know what’s way more fun? Conway Spotting!

Our world is complex, and everything is a system. Most of these systems are designed by people, and nearly all of those not even accidentally. Once you start looking for evidence for and against Conway’s Law, you won’t be able to stop. While it’s most often cited in a software engineering context, it’s much more fun in everyday life.¹

Start with the obvious parts: Packaging. Look at pretty much anything that comes packaged, and consider if and how the people responsible for packaging were talking to the people responsible for production. Was it a joint team? The same person? People who had never talked to one another? Were there language barriers involved? Outsourcing or in-house labour? Did the product designers ask the packaging people for their requirements, or was it the other way around? You won’t have definitive answers, of course, but you’ll surprised at the conclusions you’ll come to.

Next look at the finished products: Sometimes you couldn’t overlook the communication breaks even if you tried. There will be an inconsistency between the sturdiness of two parts, or the handle won’t match the main part, and so on. Decoration and texts are my favourite lossy communication border. Especially when the design or writing work is outsourced, they can lead to hilarious results. Places like /r/CrappyDesign often have good examples.

And finally, look towards more abstract systems: Train schedules, local infrastructure, conference organisation. The next time you attend an event, try to guess how (and if) the organisers have split the work.²

Of course, once you can’t unsee all the rough transitions, consider your own interactions with others. Where could you communicate better? Are you responsible for a design break that’s actually a protection measure, or a means of distancing yourself from your annoying colleague?

Enjoy the weirdness.

¹ It’s much more fun there because it’s not my own professional context, of course. It allows me to smile gently at human weirdness instead of despairing at uncooperative organisational structures. The world of software has infinite examples for Conway’s Law, from Very Serious Considerations on the nature of microservices to the perennial billing system that refuses to match the main system.

² Conference organisers are often willing to tell you all about their teams, so this is one example where you’ll even learn the correct answers. Be careful though, or you’ll find yourself roped into being an organiser yourself.