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Making Software by Greg Wilson, Andy Oram

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Chapter 11. Conway’s Corollary

Christian Bird

Design and programming are human activities; forget that and all is lost.

Bjarne Stroustrop

Conway’s Law

In 1967, Melvin Conway, an early computer scientist, computer programmer, and hacker, submitted a paper entitled “How Do Committees Invent?” to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), which summarily rejected it on the grounds that Conway “had not proved [the] thesis.”

Fortunately for the world of software design, the same paper was later accepted by Datamation, a major IT magazine of the time, and published in April 1968 [Conway 1968]. Later, in Fred Brooks’ seminal work “The Mythical Man-Month” [Brooks 1974], he referred to one of Conway’s assertions as “Conway’s Law,” and the name stuck. While there was little in the way of empirical evidence to support Conway’s assertions at the time, this “law” has received no small amount of attention in recent years. This chapter contains evidence that would no doubt have been helpful to Conway in 1967 to gather support for this assertion. This evidence is valuable today to help establish the “law” as a touchstone for modern software developers.

At the heart of Conway’s paper is the thesis:

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

As anecdotal evidence, Conway cites the following: A contract research organization had eight people who were to produce a COBOL and an ALGOL compiler. After some initial ...

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