Hacker “laws”

Saturday 5th March, 2022 - Bruce Sterling

*These are more like rules of thumb or proverbs than “laws,” but I’ve heard some of them many times and, having seen some of them in practice, I tend to believe them.



Conway’s Law

Conway’s Law on Wikipedia

This law suggests that the technical boundaries of a system will reflect the structure of the organisation. It is commonly referred to when looking at organisation improvements, Conway’s Law suggests that if an organisation is structured into many small, disconnected units, the software it produces will be. If an organisation is built more around ‘verticals’ which are oriented around features or services, the software systems will also reflect this.

See also:

The Spotify Model
Cunningham’s Law

Cunningham’s Law on Wikipedia

The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.
According to Steven McGeady, Ward Cunningham advised him in the early 1980s: “The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.” McGeady dubbed this Cunningham’s law, though Cunningham denies ownership calling it a “misquote.” Although originally referring to interactions on Usenet, the law has been used to describe how other online communities work (e.g., Wikipedia, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook).

See also:

XKCD 386: “Duty Calls”
Dunbar’s Number

Dunbar’s Number on Wikipedia

“Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships— relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.” There is some disagreement to the exact number. “… [Dunbar] proposed that humans can comfortably maintain only 150 stable relationships.” He put the number into a more social context, “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.” Estimates for the number generally lay between 100 and 250.

Like stable relationships between individuals, a developer’s relationship with a codebase takes effort to maintain. When faced with large complicated projects, or ownership of many projects, we lean on convention, policy, and modeled procedure to scale. Dunbar’s number is not only important to keep in mind as an office grows, but also when setting the scope for team efforts or deciding when a system should invest in tooling to assist in modeling and automating logistical overhead. Putting the number into an engineering context, it is the number of projects (or normalized complexity of a single project) for which you would feel confident in joining an on-call rotation to support.

See also:

Conway’s Law
The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect on Wikipedia

If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent… The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.

(David Dunning)
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a theoretical cognitive bias which was described by David Dunning and Justin Kruger in a 1999 psychological study and paper. The study suggests that people with a low level of ability at a task are likely to overestimate their ability of the task. The proposed reason for this bias is that a sufficient awareness of the complexity of a problem or domain is required for a person to be able to make an informed opinion of their capability to work in that domain.

The Dunning-Kruger effect has sometimes been used to describe a related, but not necessarily implied effect which could be described as “The less a person understands a domain, the more they are likely to believe they can easily solve problems in that domain, as they are more likely to see the domain as simple”. This more general effect is highly relevant in technology. It would suggest that people who are less familiar with a domain, such as non-technical team members or less experienced team members, are more likely to underestimate the effort required to solve a problem in this space.

As a person’s understanding and experience in a domain grows, they may well encounter another effect, which is that they tend to overestimate the ability of others or underestimate their own ability, as they are have become so experienced in the domain. In all cases these effects are cognitive biases. As with any bias, an understanding that it may be present will often be sufficient to help avoid the challenges — as when there is awareness of a bias, more inputs and opinions can be included to attempt to eliminate these biases. A closely related bias is that of Illusory superiority….