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Conway’s Law in Action

Are you leading a tech team but never heard about Conway’s law? A quick intro to one of the fundamental principles of tech organizations

By Stephan Schulze

Conway’s Law, introduced back in 1967 by programmer Melvin Conway, says:

Any organization that designs a system will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.

— Melvin Conway

In other words, your system architecture reflects your team structure and ways of communication.

How does the law apply to a typical tech team divided into frontend, backend, and infrastructure? Well, the apps that they build usually reproduce this structure:

  1. A standalone deployable frontend that interacts with a separate backend.
  2. The backend team deploys the code.
  3. They then hand over the operations to the infrastructure team.

This somewhat instinctive organizational mirroring presents several productivity challenges:

  • The frontend team can’t release new features without the backend team.
  • The backend team is equally dependent on DevOps for insights (logs etc.).
  • The infrastructure team handles the operations of an app they’re not familiar with.

Reviewing your teams or architecture from the perspective of Conway’s law helps you shape either:

  • If you start by migrating into a distributed, service-oriented architecture, your teams’ structure and communication will probably develop into service-focused crews (aka Inverse Conway Maneuver);
  • if you begin by creating product-oriented teams, your system architecture will likely evolve accordingly.
A drawing of the organizational charts of big tech companies
Organizational charts of tech giants (By Manu Cornet; CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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