Agile designers embrace change. But that doesn’t mean change is always easy. Some things are harder to change than others. So it is good to know how to explain this to impatient product stakeholders, program managers, or product owners when they ask you to handle a new requirement that to them appears to be easy but isn’t.
Joe Yoder and Brian Foote, of the Big Ball of Mud fame, provide insights into ways systems can change without too much friction. They drew inspiration from Stuart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. Brand explains that buildings are made of components organized into shearing layers. He identifies six layers: the site, the structure, the skin, the services, the space plan, and physical stuff in the building.
Each shearing layer has its own value and speed of change, or pace. According to Brand, buildings are able to adapt because faster changing layers (e.g. the services layers and spaces) are purposefully designed so to not be obstructed by slower changing layers. If you design your building well, it is fairly easy to change the plumbing. Much easier than revising the foundation. And it is even easier to rearrange the furniture. Sometimes designers go to extra efforts to make a component easier to change. For example, most conference centers are designed so that sliding panels form walls that allow inside space to be quickly modified.
Brand’s ideas should’t be surprising to software developers who follow good design practices that enable us to adapt our software: keep systems modular, remove unnecessary dependencies between components, and hide implementation details behind stable interfaces.
Foote and Yoder’s advice for avoiding tangled, hard-to-change software is to, “Factor your system so that artifacts that change at similar rates are together.” They also present a chart of typical layers in a software system and their rates of change:
Frequently, we are asked to support new functionality that requires us to make changes deep in our system. We are asked to tinker with the underlying (supposedly slower changing) layers that the rest of our software relies upon. And often, we do achieve this miraculous feat of engineering because interfaces between layers were stable and performed adequately. We got away with tinkering with the foundations without serious disruption. But sometimes we aren’t so lucky. A new requirement might demand significantly more capabilities of our underlying layers. These types of changes require significant architectural rework. And no matter how matter how agile we are, major rework requires more effort.
Because we are agile, we recognize that change is inevitable. But embracing change doesn’t make it easier, just expected. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about Foote and Yoder’s shearing layers and ways you’ve found to ease the pain of making significant software changes.