Subsystem By Skill

SubsystemBySkill.jpg organization of developers exists. They have different skills and specialties, but there is not yet any structure in the organization, nor in the system architecture, that reflects such specialization or interest.

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Birds of a feather flock together. By ConwaysLaw, you want the architecture and organization to match each other. Yet there are many possible principles of organizing both the software and the organization that builds it. There is one structure that relates to domain knowledge and the system architecture; there is also a business structure, and a geographic structure as found in OrganizationFollowsLocation. But in OrganizationFollowsLocation, each location is largely autonomous and has its own organizational decisions to make, so the issue remains of how to modularize the organizational structure locally. OrganizationFollowsLocation conveys global constraints that relate to business priorities and concerns; ConwaysLaw offers guidance in the large, but doesn't extend as well to the fine structure at the group level. And that structure--the primary low-level structure of the organization--relates to the subsystem structure. So: how do we help ConwaysLaw with a set of partitioning criteria?


Separate subsystems by staff skills and skill requirements.

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This is a refinement of the pattern ConwaysLaw; it tells what criterion by which the structures of the organization should be aligned with those of the product.

People skills tend to be relatively stable over time, so this organization protects against shifts in staff.

The variation protected against here is the variation in staff skills over time. On a small enough project, the few people may have multiple skills that enable them to mix UI design with infrastructure design with domain design. Unhappily, their successors may not, which makes system evolution more difficult and costly.

On larger projects, the many people are more likely to have single skills and specialties. If their code is intermingled, two expensive difficulties accrue: getting the different people to learn to understand each other and come to common decisions, and the same system evolution difficulty as with the smaller system.

Separating their specialties into different subsystems lets them work with their special issues in their special vocabulary, lets their successors see those issues in isolation, and makes the project easier to staff, since the staff need not be so multidisciplinary. Once the subsystems are identified, various forms of teaming may be used to develop them.
The pattern of course should be applied in moderation; too many subsystems means complex, slow software. And too fine of an organization structure is unwieldy and cumbersome.

Note the relationship to DomainExpertiseInRoles. This pattern removes one degree of freedom in DiverseGroups.
Related subsystems may be connected, while still providing a degree of independence between teams by using StandardsLinkingLocations from OrganizationalMultiplexingPatternLanguage.

UpsideDownMatrixManagement is a way of handling SubsystemBySkill.


Alistair Cockburn offers the following analysis of the relationship between HolisticDiversity and SubsystemBySkill:

HolisticDiversity is aimed at streamlining communication: "For each function or set of functions to be delivered, create a small team... evolve specialists in requirements gathering, UI design, technical design, ..." "Evaluate the team as a single unit. Arrange the team size and location so they can communicate directly." "You will have to coordinate the teams to get the ... UI design, software architecture and so on consistent across teams."

SubsystemBySkill is aimed at protecting the system against "variation in staff skills over time" — I thought of it primarily as a software design pattern, rather than a project management pattern, which is why I hadn't thought of them together. "Many people are more likely to have single skills and specialties... Separate their specialties into different subsystems"

What happens if you put the two together? You get the team structuring I described in my book ([BibRef-Cockburn1998], p. 88) for a 40-person project: function teams (using HolisticDiversity), infrastructure teams, ArchitectureTeam, and technology teams. The UI gets its own subsystem, the domain model gets it own subsystem, the database gets its own subsystem... and now you have to use HolisticDiversity to get all the parts put back together to make a working system. Expertise from each specialty on each team (some team members bring more than one specialty with them). And you also have to run a UI group across function teams to get consistent UIs; a persistence and a domain group similarly to get consistency there, too. The software ends up partitioned by skill. So you work extra hard to see that the teams don't get similarly segregated. This is the stuff that my book covers, in its tiny way.

What happens if you don't put the two together? If you don't do SubsystemBySkill, then you get UI, domain, persistence, networking code all mixed together. Yuck, but that's well known. Why have we long separated these things? Because they change independently or because they capitalize on different specialties?, or we have those specialties because they change independently or they change independently because we have those specialties?

I don't know and won't guess.

What if you don't do HolisticDiversity? Then you get a room full of UI designers, another room full of domain modelers, another room full of persistence designers / db designers, etc. I think we have all seen enough of this and its negative consequences. I am, by the way, currently in an organization separated this way, and trying to get the people, who sit only steps apart, to talk to each other on microteams.

So I think we need both: a project management pattern and a software architecture pattern, that work together.