hisham hm

🔗 Conway’s Law applied to the industry as a whole

Melvin Conway famously said that organizations design systems that mirror their own communication structure. But how about Conway’s Law applied to the entire industry rather than a single company?

The tech industry, and open source (OSS) in particular, are mostly shaped now around the dominating communication structure — GitHub. Nadia Eghbal’s book “Working in Public” does a great job at explaining how OSS’s centralization around a big platform mirrors what happened everywhere on the internet, with us going from personal websites to social networks.

Another huge shift in organizational and communication structure, especially in Open Source, has been the increasing coalescence of maintainership: we historically talk about “a loosely-knit group of contributors” but most OSS nowadays is written by employees of big companies.

The commit stats in big projects like the Linux kernel indicate this, as do GitHub stats and the like. There’s a long tail of small independent contributors, of course, but by quantity major projects are dominated by those hired full-time to work on it.

One thing I haven’t seen discussed a lot is how much this reality changes the way projects are run and developed. Sometimes we see it coming up in particular cases, such as the relationship between Amazon and Rust, but this is a general phenomenon.

When Canonical came into the scene back in 2004-2005, I remember distinctly noticing their impact on OSS; it wasn’t just “more getting done” (yay?) but also what and how—various projects shifted direction around that time (GNOME comes to mind); it didn’t feel like a coincidence.

I don’t mean to imply it’s all bad, just that we don’t discuss enough about how the influence of Big Co development styles affect, in a “Conway’s-law-way”, the development of OSS, and even tech in general, since both open and closed development are so linked nowadays.

OSS has a big impact on how tech in general works (though the reliance of every company on OSS dependencies), and Big Cos have an impact on how OSS works (through their huge presence on the OSS developer community), so in this way they affect everybody. People bring in the experiences they know and how they’re used to working, from coding styles to architecture and deployment patterns to decision processes.

One great example where this is more evident is the “monorepo” discussion, which happens to projects of many sizes nowadays, and where Google and FB experiences are often brought up.

“help our codebase is too big” no, your company is too big. try sharding into microservice entities operating as a cluster in the same management substrate rather than staying as a monolith

@myrrlyn on Twitter

The tweet above is such a great insight: we often see conversations about how to deal with huge codebases (using the likes of Google and FB as examples) AND we often see conversations about Big Tech monopolies — and how they’ve grown way beyond the status at which other monopolies were broken up in the past — but those two topics are hardly ever linked.

If we agree that some aspects of Big Tech as organizations are negative, how much of those do they bring into tech as technology practices via Conway’s Law? OSS seems to act as a filter that makes this relationship less evident, because contributions come from individuals, even though they work for these companies, and often replicate their practices, even if unknowingly.

These individuals will often, even if unknowingly, replicate practices from these companies. This is after all, a process of cultures spreading and influencing each other. It just seems to me that we as an industry are not aware enough of this phenomenon, and we probably should be more attuned to this.


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