Social Anarchy in Software Development

Preface: philosophical constructs

One of my favorite things to do is contemplate questions that begin with why and how – questions that often don’t have clear answers, and have the power to transform otherwise banal topics into subjects worthy of meaningful inquiry. This aligns with Zen teachings that any activity may be a path to enlightenment. Everything matters, because everything is interconnected.

In other words, everything has a philosophy.

So recently, when I was to give a talk on the topic of software development, I chose to frame it in the context of an underlying philosophy. My stated goal was to present a very effective process we use at my company, WegoWise, to collaboratively produce high quality software. But wouldn’t it be more interesting, I thought, to ask why we chose to have certain processes? Not the obvious and superficial why, but the deeper why that delves into sociology, psychology, and ethics. The why that asks about the actual philosophy behind what we do.

I think these are the interesting questions, because they have incredibly interesting answers.

We are, as far as our development processes go at least, social anarchists. This isn’t a result of an explicit prior intention to apply an ideological label. I doubt, in fact, if many of my colleagues would be willing to call themselves anarchists. We merely built a set of processes based on shared values–values that happen to exemplify social anarchist philosophy.

Sidebar: How do you define "philosophy"?

A concise definition of anarchy

Anarchy is grossly misunderstood, so it is necessary that I provide a brief definition. The fundamental principle of anarchist thought is that the state holds no moral authority over the individual, or over collectives of individuals. An anarchist therefore seeks to abolish the state, at all levels. It is, fundamentally, an anti-fascist ideology.

Anarchy is often confused with chaos, under the belief that there can be no order without some form of authority. Instead, anarchism proposes that there is a stable form of society wherein individuals govern themselves. There are many schools of thought on how this might happen, often in strong contrast with one another. Social anarchy outlines a system that is guided by a social compact among people, predicated on community, reciprocity, and equality.

I am not aware of any historic examples of large anarchist societies. In the case of social anarchy, it is easy to see why this is. The philosophy builds on the idea that individuals do, in fact, respect one another, and wish to work in a system of mutual aid. Individuals must possess a high level of equanimity for their fellow man. As the size of a society becomes larger and more diverse, this becomes an increasingly challenging requirement. Our cultures simply haven’t evolved to the point where people can be expected to possess such traits at large scales.

The principles of social anarchy have, however, been very effective at small scales. The Buddhist economic principles that Schumacher observed in Burma in 1955, for example, share many ideals of social anarchy. The recent Occupy protests provide a good example of anarchist decision-making. In small collectives with a culture of mutual respect, social anarchy is an attainable (and, I believe, desirable) goal.

Anarchy within a company culture

WegoWise is a relatively small organization. Individuals know each other well, have shared goals, and similar philosophies within the domain in which we interact. For example, we believe that there is an artistry to the work that we do, and that there is real value in pursuing the more artful solution to a problem. If work is a vehicle for the mind, one ought to work in a manner that expands the mind, rather than dulls it.

The culture of our team is defined in large part by how we operate as a collective. Ideas originate from all directions, decisions are made based on discussion and mutuality, and processes reflect a respect for the individual even as they respond to the needs of the whole.

We have, therefore, the fundamentals prerequisites for a successful social anarchy. However, we also operate within a larger context that places constraints on what we can do. A business is it’s own society from within, but it also has to act as a member of an external society that is decidedly not anarchist. So we impose a certain degree of structure, with leadership roles and reporting relationships, and executive decisions that may not always be made by consensus.

In many domains, though, we have much more control. Software development is one of those domains, and within it, we may choose how we operate. And we choose to be anarchists.

Goals of a software development process

At last, to the topic at hand.

Software is a collaborative field. Groups of people work on large systems, often with different ideas of how things should be done and without being able to know what all the moving parts are at any given time. We design processes to manage the complexity inherent in these dynamic environments.

We must design our processes to meet numerous goals. We require a reliable product; an application that behaves the way we expect it to behave. We must be able to improve that product over time, and scale our systems to meet higher demands. And we have to make sure to do this in a sustainable and enjoyable way–there must be joy in our work.

We can meet these goals through standard practices: automated testing, pair programming, code reviews, regular communication and retrospectives. However, such practices do not, in and of themselves, define a process. How do we ensure such practices are followed in a consistent and meaningful fashion?

I posit that, in order to meet our design goals, we should like for our development process to:

A standard approach: Enforcing test-driven development

A thoroughly automated test suite is one of the best ways to meet at least some of our goals. Proper testing gives developers confidence that making changes in one section of a large and complex codebase will not break the application’s behavior in an unexpected manner. Tests allow developers to work without fear.

Test-driven development is an effective approach to ensuring tests get written, and many organizations have therefore defined their processes around it. This paradigm enforces that one must write tests first, watch them fail, and then write the corresponding code. It can be taken a step further to include multiple layers of testing, and an outside-in approach wherein one writes higher-level tests before proceeding to low-level tests and finally to writing code.

Enforcing test-driven development as a formal process is, I believe, an undesirable approach because it reflects a fundamentally fascist ideology. This process requires developers to train their minds to operate in very specific ways. It therefore sets constraints not just on what a person does, but how they do it. In broad terms, a centralized authority is asserting control over the behavior of an individual within the privacy of their own mind and work. What else would you call this, if not fascism?

My objections go beyond the philosophical to the practical. Test-driven development is incredibly effective when we have very clearly defined goals and know ahead of time what we wish to accomplish. In these cases, writing software is pure implementation. Much of the time, however, software is more of an art form. And the exploratory and artistic nature of the field is what creative individuals thrive on; perhaps even find transcendent at times. Requiring a strict procedure at every step disincentivizes exploration because there is extra overhead to trying things that don’t work. For many individuals, it dampens the joy of discovery. These creative individuals are the most valuable assets any team can have. One ought not create a process that prevents them from acting at their best.

Societal laws ought to protect the commons and preserve individual liberty.
Our team's process ought to protect the codebase and preserve developer flexibility.

Our anarchist approach

The following is somewhat technical.

At WegoWise, we follow an approach I refer to as atomic commits. We use git as our version control system, and rely on a specific branching model: master always mirrors what is being run on production, and any changes–whether they are trivial bug fixes or large features–are made on branches. These branches are then merged into master when they are ready to be deployed.

Such a strategy provides enormous freedom to the individual, because it clearly defines boundaries:

master is the commons
branches belong to the individual

There is one shared, canonical codebase, which is presented to the public as the official product. If an individual wishes to amend it, they affect everyone. Therefore, we establish a system of self-governance in order to make changes to this common resource. Style guides, code reviews, and QA processes are among the guidelines established by the group.

So long as an individual is working on a separate branch, however, they can do whatever they want. This is because until they want to merge into master, they aren’t affecting anyone else in any way. So what moral basis do others have to force them to work according to some specific process?

Social anarchism relies on the idea that it is possible for individuals to agree on acceptable social norms–the laws of society. Without a state agent, however, how are we to police individuals who decide to violate these norms? The answer lies in our presumption that we are dealing with well-intentioned individuals who want to work together.

If someone disagrees with the guidelines that have been established, we seek to understand the cause for their grievance, and give it an open public hearing. The team discusses amongst themselves and decides how to amend the existing guidelines to meet the concerns of the aggrieved individual.

We do, in fact, amended our processes on a regular basis using exactly this approach.

The rules of the commons: Atomic commits

We have established the following four rules for accepting commits into master:

  1. Every commit must make sense on its own
  2. Every commit must do something meaningful
  3. No commit may cause the test suite to fail
  4. Every commit must include thorough tests for all code changes

Rules 1-4 define what I describe as atomic commits. Commits are atomic according to the original Greek notion of being self-enclosed and, in some sense, indivisible.

Rules 1 & 2: Communication and learning

It is commonplace for a developer to want to understand the history of how and why a certain file, or a specific line of code, was modified. Reading through the history for a codebase ought to be somewhat like reading a Hemingway novel. Terse prose that flows together to tell a story. This encourages clear communication and fosters learning.

When a developer is working on a branch, they will commonly commit code that is a “work in progress”. These incomplete changes make sense to the developer while they are working, but don’t convey any intention to others who might want to understand the author’s intention. Even the original author, when examining their own code six months into the future, is unlikely to understand what their exact thought process was in creating an incomplete set of changes.

When every commit is self-enclosed, the author is able to write a concise summary of their higher-level goals in a way that conveys meaningful intent to others. Requiring every commit to do something meaningful is a way of further improving communication–less noise results in a cleaner signal.

By specifying a restriction on the logical consistency of commits, we provide an avenue for developers to learn by reexamining their own work before presenting it for review. To clarify this idea, consider the following analogy:

I step outside of my home and encounter a tourist who asks me for directions to a particular restaurant I dined at just a week ago. I had gotten somewhat lost trying to get there, and took a roundabout path before eventually arriving at the restaurant. I could recollect for the tourist all of my twists and turns, but those would be thoroughly confusing directions. Instead, I choose to map out the path in my head, understand where I went wrong, and provide directions based on the clearest route I can think of. In the process, I find that I have also improved my own understanding of the geography around me.

the long way oh, right

When a developer reorganizes their work to present to others, they perform the exact same mental process as described above: remapping the route they took to make sense of their decisions, getting a more coherent picture of the landscape, and perhaps discover a shorter and clearer path to reach the same destination. This self-assessment of past work is a critically valuable learning tool.

Rules 3 & 4: Reliability and flexibility

The last two rules, that commits may not cause test failures and must be bundled with thorough tests, clearly meet our objective of a codebase that performs as expected. Equally important is the fact that they allow individuals to choose how they will meet that objective.

In discussing test-driven development earlier, I stated that it is an effective approach to testing. In fact, developers on our team often choose to follow a test-driven approach while working. Our rules certainly allow that. But they don’t require it. It is also common to experiment with varying algorithms and design patterns, and settle upon one before writing any tests at all. The process of writing the tests may then reveal gaps in the earlier logic which prompt changes in the code and further iterations.

Regardless of how an individual chooses to meet the rules, the important point here is that the rules are placed on the shared resources where communal agreement is the highest priority. There are no rules places on the developer in the context of their own work.

The final process

Adding up all of the discussion above, we arrive at a process that has two distinct components: an internal approach that defines how an individual chooses to tackle a problem, and an external set of steps where a developer interacts with the community, and the rules of the commons are in play.

Note that the top row in this chart, representing the developer’s internal process, is a reflection of the most common set of steps a developer might take, not a hard-and-fast set of rules.

Internal processes Formulate an approach   Write your code and tests   Organize your branch
Present code for review   Iterations based on feedback   QA & deploy External processes


The discussion above leaves out a number of details. After presenting this topic to a group of developers, I received many questions, some of which I will address here. If you have any others, please email me.

Does someone oversee this process?

No. The entire idea is that the team governs itself. Any individual can deploy code, and every individual is expected to be responsible for making sure the common rules are followed.

How does this change if two developers are pair programming?

Replace all of the references to individuals in the process above with references to the pair who are working together. The pair of developers may decide amongst themselves how they want to structure their process, and who is responsible for what.

How do you deal with incredibly large features when you have atomic commits?

Atomic commits do not require that an entire feature be included in one commit. Instead, it encourages the feature to be broken into logical, self-enclosed chunks which each fit into one commit.

Does this approach work when you have different skill levels within a team? Don't inexperienced individuals need more structure?

Structure is vital when we learn new things. The Japanese principle of Shuhari, describes the first stage towards mastery, Shu, as a phase in one must focus on learning and obeying. There are excellent articles describing how this may be applied to software development.

I agree entirely with the idea that one must learn first before one is able to act, and that learning generally requires following existing practices. Children are required to learn multiplication tables by rote, for example, before they are able to grasp mathematical concepts more abstractly.

However, it is important to understand that there is, of course, a difference between the situation of a child, and an inexperienced adult. One may say that following a certain discipline is usually the most effective way to master an art, and one individual may certainly suggest to another that following that discipline might be beneficial to them. However, it is incumbent upon the individual who requires instruction to decide to relinquish control–no other may take that control from them.

An organization, therefore, ought to focus on recruiting people who have a desire to improve, suggesting to them approaches they might take, providing them with the guidance and mentoring they may request, and making assessments based on external performance.

How do you define "philosophy"?

I admit to being rather loose with my use of the term “philosophy” in this piece. I interchange, to some extent, the terms philosophy and ideology, which is not strictly appropriate.

My working definition of philosophy comes from the following outlook:

Every action we take as individuals reflects the philosophical construct by which we lead our lives. Our awareness of these constructs, and our ability to understand and modify the philosophies that guide us, determine the extent to which we lead directed lives. The extent to which individuals direct their own pattern of thought, in turn, determines the evolution of a thinking species.

Philosophy may refer to abstract disciplines, or practical ones, and there are strong connections between the two: logic yields mathematics, and epistemology guides how we think of scientific truth. Philosophy may be impersonal, but it also includes the most deeply personal experiences we may have: the contemplation of emptiness and reflections on the nature of the self. I count the numerous fundamental questions that guide our daily experiences to be legitimately described as realms of philosophical inquiry: What is the basis for our social, political and economic systems? Why should we take one action instead of another? How are we to construct the systems we live and work in?

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13 Dec 2012