The Skyscraper, the Great Wall, and the Tree

One World Trade Center will be a 105 story super-skyscraper when completed. It’s estimated total cost is $3.1 Billion.

When it’s complete, how much would it cost to add the 106th story? Would it be 105th of $3.1 Billion? No. The building was constructed from the ground up to be a certain height. The maximum height depends on the ground it’s sitting on, the foundation, the first floor, and so on. Each of those would need to be strengthened to add one more story.

It’s possible to engineer a building so that you can add more floors later, but that means over-engineering the foundation and the structure.

Contrast the building of a skyscraper with the building of the Great Wall in China. The Great Wall is infinitely scalable. It stretches for many thousands of kilometers, and each additional kilometer probably cost less than the one before because the builders became more skilled as they worked.

The difference between the skyscraper and the Great Wall is all about dependencies. In the case of the skyscraper, every story depends on everything below it. In the case of the Great Wall, each section of wall only depends on the ground underneath, and the sections of wall on either side. If one section is faulty, you can easily demolish it and rebuild it. If one section is in the wrong place, you only have to rebuild a copy of sections to go around the obstacle.

When you’re building the Great Wall, you can probably take an experienced stonemason and have him start laying stone on the first day, without much thought about the design. With a skyscraper, it’s the opposite. You spend years designing before you ever break ground.

When people first started to write software, they built it like the Great Wall. Just start writing code. The program gets longer and longer. Unfortunately, complex programs don’t have linear dependencies. Each part of the code tends to have dependencies on every other part. Out of this came two things: the Waterfall model, and Modular programming. While modular programming was a success at reducing dependencies, and eventually led to object-oriented (and message-oriented) programming, the Waterfall model was eventually supplanted by Agile methodologies.

The software developed by Agile methodologies is neither like the Great Wall (there are still many inter-dependencies) and yet nothing like the traditional skyscraper (because the many dependencies are loosely coupled).

Agile software grows organically, like a tree. You can cut off a limb that’s no longer useful, or grow in a new direction when you must.

Many programmers seem to think that Agile means you don’t have to design. This isn’t true. A tree still has an architecture. It’s just a more flexible architecture than a skyscraper. Instead of building each new layer on top of the layers beneath it, you build a scaffolding structure that supports each module independently.

The scaffolding is made up of the SOLID principles like the single responsibility principle, and dependency injection, but it also consists of external structures like automated unit tests. If Agile software is like a tree, you spend more time on the trunk than the branches and more time on the branches than the leaves. The advantage is that none of the leaves are directly connected, so you can move them. That’s what it means to be Agile.

What are the trade-offs? Agile enthusiasts seem to think that every other methodology is dead, but that’s not true. You can still go higher, faster, with a skyscraper, or get started sooner with the Great Wall.

Embedded control systems for automobiles are still built like a skyscraper. That’s because the requirements should be very well known, and future changes are unlikely. On the other hand, you’d be surprised how many businesses run significant portions of their businesses on top of Excel spreadsheets. That’s typical Great Wall methodology. It works as long as complexity stays low.

Use Agile when you need complexity and flexibility.

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