Thin Air

Bodily Processes

Over on Exploration Through Example, Brian Marik notes that biological systems, despite being fantastically flexible and resilient are kind of ugly from an engineering and design point of view, as they flagrantly violate the OneResponsibilityRule:

The fact is, the body is a gross kludge. You'd fire anyone who designed
software that way.

To me the interesting thing about biology isn't the designs that one finds in living organisms, marvelous as they are, but the process that produces them. Evolution is the ultimate agile development process.

The key to this metaphor is that evolution doesn't design bodies - individual organisms - but genomes. Species. Individual organisms are nothing more than test runs for the genome, with the world as a test fixture with only one assertion: any organism that creates a new copy of the genome gets a green bar. Development proceeds by making small design changes, testing them, and immediately applying the feedback.

The amazing thing about evolution is not that it's able to produce designs that work, but that it's able to do so without intelligent direction. It's the process of constantly gathering and applying feedback that enables evolution to work so well.

The same can be said of agile development in the software world. The problem with BigDesignUpFront is that it relies too much on the intelligence of the designers. Nobody is smart enough to create a design that can perfectly meet the needs of everyone who will ever use a piece of software, nor anticipate all the ways in which it might need to be modified or extended. By seeking and applying feedback, agile developers eliminate the need for an omniscient designer, and bring the task down to a level that mere mortals can handle.

Where agile software design differs from evolution is that we do apply intelligent direction to the process, and so we have to arrange our designs so that we can bring our intelligence to bear on them. The agile practices that aren't about feedback tend to be about comprehension. Refactoring, pair programming, retrospectives, group ownership and so on are all aimed at making the design and process as comprehensible as possible to as many people as possible.

And isn't this what OneResponsibilityRule and OnceAndOnlyOnce are about anyway? After all, one organ that performs several complementary functions is more efficient than several organs, from a strictly functional point of view, and that's actually quite beautiful in it's own way.

Posted in programming