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3.2 Conway’s Law

Conway’s Law4 was coined by the American computer scientist Melvin Edward Conway and indicates the following:

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

It is important to know that this law is meant to apply not only to software but to any kind of design. The communication structures that Conway mentions, do not have to be identical to the organization chart. Often there are informal communication structures, which also have to be considered in this context. In addition, the geographical distribution of teams can influence communication. After all it is much simpler to talk to a colleague who works in the same room or at least in the same office than with one working in a different city or even in a different time zone.

Reasons for the Law

Conway’s Law derives from the fact that each organizational unit designs a specific part of the architecture. If two architectural parts have an interface, coordination in regards to this interface is required—and, consequently, a communication relationship between the organizational units that are responsible for the respective parts of the architecture.

From Conway’s Law it can also be deduced that design modularization is sensible. Via such a design, it is possible to ensure that not every team member has to constantly coordinate with every other team member. Instead the developers working on the same module can closely coordinate their efforts, while team members working on different modules only have to coordinate when they develop an interface—and even then only in regards to the specific design of the external features of this interface.

However, the communication relationships extend beyond that. It is much easier to collaborate with a team within the same building than with a team located in another city, another country, or even within a different time zone. Therefore, architectural parts having numerous communication relationships are better implemented by teams that are geographically close to each other, because it is easier for them to communicate with each other. In the end, the Conway’s Law focuses not on the organization chart but on the real communication relationships.

By the way, Conway postulated that a large organization has numerous communication relationships. Thus communication becomes more difficult or even impossible in the end. As a consequence, the architecture can be increasingly affected and finally break down. In the end, having too many communication relationships is a real risk for a project.

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.


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.

The Law as Enabler

However, Conway’s Law can also be used to support approaches like microservices. If the goal is to develop individual components as independently of each other as possible, the system can be distributed into domain components. Based on these domain components, teams can be created. Figure 3.3 illustrates this principle: There are individual teams for product search, clients, and the order process. These teams work on their respective components, which can be technically divided into UI, backend, and database. By the way, the domain components are not explicitly named in the figure, for they are identical to the team names. Components and teams are synonymous. This approach corresponds to the idea of so-called cross-functional teams, as proposed by methods such as Scrum. These teams should encompass different roles so that they can cover a large range of tasks. Only a team designed along such principles can be in charge of a component—from engineering requirements via implementation through to operation.


Figure 3.3 Project by Domains

The division into technical artifacts and the interface between the artifacts can then be settled within the teams. In the easiest case, developers only have to talk to developers sitting next to them to do so. Between teams, coordination is more complex. However, inter-team coordination is not required very often, since features are ideally implemented by independent teams. Moreover, this approach creates thin interfaces between the components. This avoids laborious coordination across teams to define the interface.

Ultimately, the key message to be taken from Conway’s Law is that architecture and organization are just two sides of the same coin. When this insight is cleverly put to use, the system will have a clear and useful architecture for the project. Architecture and organization have the common goal to ensure that teams can work in an unobstructed manner and with as little coordination overhead as possible.

The clean separation of functionality into components also facilitates maintenance. Since an individual team is responsible for individual functionality and component, this distribution will have long-term stability, and consequently the system will remain maintainable.

The teams need requirements to work upon. This means that the teams need to contact people who define the requirements. This affects the organization beyond the projects, for the requirements come from the departments of the enterprise, and these also according to Conway’s Law have to correspond to the team structures within the project and the domain architecture. Conway’s Law can be expanded beyond software development to the communication structures of the entire organization, including the users. To put it the other way round: the team structure within the project and consequently the architecture of a microservice system can follow from the organization of the departments of the enterprise.

The Law and Microservices

The previous discussion highlighted the relationship between architecture and organization of a project only in a general manner. It would be perfectly conceivable to align the architecture along functionalities and devise teams, each of which are in charge for a separate functionality without using microservices. In this case the project would develop a deployment monolith within which all functionalities are implemented. However, microservices support this approach. Section 3.1 already discussed that microservices offer technical independence. In conjunction with the division by domains, the teams become even more independent of each other and have even less need to coordinate their work. The technical coordination as well as the coordination concerning the domains can be reduced to the absolute minimum. This makes it far easier to work in parallel on numerous features and also to bring the features in production.

Microservices as a technical architecture are especially well suited to support the approach to devise a Conway’s Law–based distribution of functionalities. In fact, exactly this aspect is an essential characteristic of a microservices-based architecture.

However, orienting the architecture according to the communication structures entails that a change to the one also requires a change of the other. This makes architectural changes between microservices more difficult and makes the overall process less flexible. Whenever a piece of functionality is moved from one microservice to another, this might have the consequence that another team has to take care of this functionality from that point on. This type of organizational change renders software changes more complex.

As a next step this chapter will address how the distribution by domain can best be implemented. Domain-driven design (DDD) is helpful for that.

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