Scale fast effect (Practical implications of Conway’s law)

Tim Meeuwissen
Apr 16 · 8 min read

At Jumbo, we’ve started to scale fast within a short amount of time. E-Commerce is not something we do on the side anymore. It’s part of our core. It’s who we are.

We’ve started scaling the digital landscape hard. And like children, when you grow fast, you might experience some growing pains every now and then. In this article I’m writing a chronological sequence of things that happen when you scale your development effort fast.

When you know you are in a fast scaling organisation and feel lost every now and then, this article might bring you perspective of where you are situated and what steps will follow to absolution ;-).

Where it starts

Given that this article is in regards to scaling fast, the origin of your digital adventure is somewhere along

  • It’s a complete new endeavour
  • The potential is clear but there was simply not enough money
  • The potential was unclear, it wasn’t a priority

Whatever the cause might be, the scale is small. This inherently means that you’ll have a small amount of people, steering a small amount of developers (internal or externally), working on a small amount of products.

Digital is part of who we are

At some point in time you manage to prove that this is what we should do. This is what will push your company into the next era. But in order to get more features and attract a bigger audience (or get the ability to attend your current audience), your company will need to make a bet. They will need to invest real money over a period of time before they get a return on that investment.

The first thing that will happen is that the company starts hiring people that can help them forward. The issue is that — in the current market climate —, the ratio developer to job is in the favour of the developer. Meaning that in order to attract the best developers, you’ll have to compete with the best tech campuses out there.

This is a struggle, because you’ll have to adjust your expectations. Unfortunately allocating a lot of money doesn’t inherently give you all these intrinsically motivated people you hope for.

One way to scale quick here is hiring externally with companies as partners to start setting up your new organisational structure.

You’ve managed to internalise some development teams. With these teams, you’ll become able to create a culture that attracts the people you search for. The scale feels big(ger). You’ll still have one stream of business demand, but you’ll have multiple teams working on features. These features still flow into one application, but life is good, for a while.

Features features features

You now have the workforce to work on many things at the same time. This means that your business becomes able to put themselves close to the fire in order for them to make sure you are building the things that pay the bills. Their PO’s will take place in your teams and you’ll set up a process that helps in prioritising the demand. The moment you create these teams is also the moment Conway’s law starts to bite you. It states:

Organisations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organisations

Lots of new features will be implemented. You’ll learn as a business that it’s sometimes best to apply validated learning. Set smaller goals, define how to measure them, validate the success, continue your path or improve and adjust course.

Your tech department will however learn that not all progress is measurable in the definitions of pageviews, turnover, performance and these metrics. Some effort is made, because of an ideology.

And Jumbo is big on that. We believe. We believe in Service with a smile. We believe in being every day low price. We believe in a pleasant shopping experience. We believe in a winning mentality, a positive attitude and an ability to overcome whatever it is you need to overcome.

Unfortunately, pushing all these features usually leads to a drain in Performance, lots of bugs, dissatisfaction on working on the product and lots of troubles keeping the boat floating. This is a hard, but a good spot to be in. You’ve proved that there is a huge demand for the course you’ve charted, you’re just not there yet to be able to cope with the demand.

Ownership

Because you are working on óne application, it becomes increasingly hard to take ownership of your product. You’ll see product owners focussing on the new features they want to have in, but not focussing on the quality of the product. They’ve essentially became Problem Owners.

It’s a logical thing though. Since all functions are entangled in this one monolith, it’s impossible for them to take the ownership even if they’d want to. What we need is to crumble the monolith into pieces that can be owned. In order for them to be adopted by business to become something that they can take ownership off.

What you need here is a push from Development as well as from Business in unlocking business Capabilities. In order to determine the business capability you have to ask yourself: If I had a business and I would spend money on this, what would it enable me to do? Concrete examples would be:

  • the ability to process payments
  • the ability to send push messages to my customers
  • the ability to know where the order now physically is

Each ability is atomically defined. This inherently means that when I develop the functionality: ‘send a message 15 minutes before the order reaches the customer’, unlocks these building blocks (Business Capabilities) my other processes also benefit from. The more capabilities you unlock, the easier it becomes to combine them and service future business demands.

Development should dissect new incoming projects into business capabilities. This takes maturity in the sense that you will have to understand the challenges from the perspective of your customer, rather than your own technical perspective. Each piece of the puzzle has to be allocated around a business domain and serviced accordingly. This will give business something to own.

Utilise your 20% tech debt time-budget to restructure low hanging fruit on the edge of your monolith. Don’t dive for complexity immediately. If you succeed in breaking away simple pieces, the relevancy will become clear and you’ll reduce the need on managerially complex data storages and prevent from taking on too complex (and mission critical) business processes. Set course for small successes and you’ll be able to conquer bigger chunks of logic soon.

Utilise the influx of new (bigger) stories to leverage another 10 to 20% (e.g.) of your time-budget to moving away from the monolith. You are determining the ‘how’, business is determining the ‘what’. You have this room, use it! The law of holes states that once you are in a hole, you should stop digging. So try to prevent creating new functionality in your monolith and start building something outside of it.

Business should start looking at their feature requests a bit different as well. Their opportunity versus cost analysis should deepen a bit, taking the unlocking of features into account.

Let’s say, we have three epics

  • 8 effort, 8 cost : Notify people whenever their basket offers expire
  • 5 effort, 5 cost : Send messages when we are 15 min away with order
  • 3 effort, 3 cost : Show average delivery time for the current order

None of these are ‘low hanging fruit’ you’d say. But what if I’d say:

  • if the 5/5 effort has been made whilst unlocking its true business capabilities (know where the order is, format a personalised message and send push messages to customers),
  • the 8/8 becomes an 8/3 (because we already can send push messages and personalise them)
  • and the 3/3 becomes a 3/1 (because we already collect metrics on delivery times)?

What we evidently miss is a factor that multiplies the opportunity value due to its unlocked capabilities.

You’ll get valuable things cheaper, ánd the entire room starts knowing about the capabilities, which enables you to allocate the capabilities at their respected owners. Because you need the capabilities to justify your project, you’ll defend it and your peers require you to utilise it.

A concrete way to do a calculation could be:

  • explain how much of the cost is actually in business capabilities
  • add this cost as opportunity to the equation
  • determine a multiplication factor. In my example this is 1. You might want to tune this to higher once you start with this, and lower the further your development progresses

5 opportunity, 5 effort of which 4 effort for business capability development, becomes 9 opportunity (5 + 4 * 1) versus 5 effort and thus something that might be interesting to start picking up. This structure enforces you as well to develop your business capabilities for the epics that produce most business value.

You now have a service oriented architecture where people feel (and are) responsible for. New features won’t be accepted if they impact one of these services in a negative way. Bugs will be hunt, performance will be on top of mind. A project manager will have to talk with Product Owners to be able to integrate new functionality into their systems. A natural guard has been created.

Dev and Ops

If you create it, and you are responsible, you should run it. If you can’t run it yourself, you can’t be held fully responsible.

You should prevent a blame culture at all time. If someone can be blamed (rightfully or not), it will set a negative context. It poisons the atmosphere. It’s a constant excuse to underperform. And it might not be evident, but some take real comfort in this situation, it gives them power and personal validation to be able to be the hero when trouble arises. Therefore they might not be inclined to actually solve the problem at hand.

If you want to be the best, you should be in control. So if you need to roll an update now, nobody should be between you and the deployment. If you temporarily need more resources, you should be able to pull them. Of course you need to operate within boundaries, but for the simple stuff you should be empowered to ‘do it yourself’. And when something breaks, you should be held responsible. Only then you have the speed (agility) to improve continuously. Someone else cannot be held accountable for the software you wrote. And even more relevant, you won’t release bad code because it’s your head that rolls when it goes wrong.

DevOps doesn’t mean you do everything yourself though. But Ops becomes facilitating rather than steering. Steering Ops makes a lot of sense as long as your landscape primarily revolves around external applications, but when you build your own application it becomes an major blocker unless you can make the transition to facilitating the teams.

The good thing is that you, like no other, know how to prevent these problems. Becoming DevOps means, taking care of Quality Assurance within the designs of your code and deployment as well.

Conclusion

Whenever you find yourself lost in a transition due to scaling up rapidly, know that you just haven’t reached the operational optimum yet, and the turmoil you experience is needed to get to the next stage of maturity. Conway’s law is not a law because it has to be followed. It became a law because it’s a cascade of logical steps that will happen when you are in a certain situation.

If you can identify yourself with one of the steps in the document, find peace in that eventually your situation (with the willingness of all involved) will resolve to a well oiled machine. Transitions just take some time.

Jumbo Tech Campus

Where it all happens.

Thanks to Joep Piscaer

Tim Meeuwissen

Written by

Software / Solution Architect for Work. Father, farmer, tech lover, skiing, kiting, RC stuff, 101 hobbies. Seriously passionate in understanding how stuff works

Jumbo Tech Campus

Where it all happens.

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