Friday, January 15, 2016


I've always been attracted to the idea of self-organization by informal means, and there was an article not long ago talking about stimergy in a software development context.

The idea is that everyone somehow knows what to do without talking to each other, but just by doing the work and observing the signs left behind, implicit and explicit.

For instance, how do we add a new page to the app? By copying an existing. How do we know something is wrong? Well, either someone already removed the problematic part so we don't see it anymore, or someone added a FIXME note with the intention of doing it later. Or perhaps it just sticks out so visibly that nobody is in doubt it's bad.


I think of it as a room full of arrows lying on the floor.

If you are bad at software development, the arrows will be pointing in random directions, and confusion ensues at every point in the process. You can never sprint, only stumble.

The goal is to make sure everything is tidied up so the arrows point in the same direction, the direction we want to go in. We need to constantly check and revise the code to align the arrows, not only align them to each other but also align them with the evershifting goals of the system. The goal of training newcomers is to teach them to read the arrows and make new arrows point in the right direction.

For instance, if a function is named after how it was conceived, not after how it is currently being used, it's pointing in the wrong direction. When you later try to reason with it, your mind will tend to go down the wrong paths and you'll reach the wrong conclusions, leading to bugs, or at least waste time having to retrace your steps.

You can add a comment to the function, but it's far more powerful to fix the name so it's pointing in the right direction, even if it's more work up front. Arrows matter.

I think this is a powerful metaphor.

Simple processes

I also think it's a powerful method.

Everything is done by engaging with the main activity, programming. It's through this activity that we learn and exchange the acquired knowledge.

Anyone can contribute to the direction. The value of the contribution is correlated with the confusion the contribution leaves in the greater system. It can be negative, but it can also be a stroke of genius, the subtle touch that makes the arrows of the system appear in greater clarity and alignment.

It is dynamic. If a bad decision is made, it's precisely as fixed as the program. The effort it takes to fix the program is the effort it takes to change the decision, no more and no less. Once something enters the program, it takes a life of its own, removed from the egos of programmers involved. The ego might point in one direction, but the code has its own signs.

Yet it's really simple. It works for ants.

Ant by Katja Schulz


Of course we're not ants. We need to and should communicate. We can pre-align our internal arrows to solve a complex problem much more efficiently than a bunch of ants that are mostly relying on evolved instincts.

But once the program starts, the communication becomes fragmented and loses some of its relevance compared to the work we actually do. You want to know what I did last week? Look at my commit log.

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