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Through Not Around: Transhuman Systems and Change, Part I

[This piece was originally a talk I gave at Nearform's Microservices Day conference, to the confusion of all ;). I am posting it here in 3 parts, and in full disheveled glory…]Composition/DecompositionI am going to discuss a topic that is has been thoroughly, exhaustively explored. The topic is organizational change. So that we all do not die of boredom, we are going to take a different approach — we will try to think about this idea — how organizations change, as importantly, why we want to change them — a bit differently. I can not promise it will be original, or even intelligible, but I can promise that we will keep it a little bit weird.The overall topic of this day is microservices. Microservices are a framework for decomposition, a way to break a big thing into smaller things. We practice decomposition, paradoxically, in order to make big things — really it's composition that we are interested in, but we tend to approach it through decomposition. That is, we think of a whole thing, break it into pieces, and use the pieces to build a bigger whole thing. In theory, we could just build pieces, and assemble them, but that does not seem to be the way our minds work.If you are actually building software, the distinctions between microservices and other modes of decomposition, we could say the side effects, are very important. Whether we decompose and compose with microservices, or objects, or methods, or shared libraries, or functions, makes a big difference on the real-world characteristics of the system, on the implementations themselves, and especially the manner in which we change the system. If we are just talking, like we are now, more or less theoretically, it matters less.The strategy of decomposition/composition is common to how we construct any kind of complex system — software, hardware, buildings, companies, armies, societies, maybe even families. It's part of how our own minds literally work. Our brains themselves seem to be a bunch of discreet services wired together with neurons, and we ourselves an emergent phenomena of the system. So we can be forgiven for a sense of deja vu. Because we've definitely been here before. We've been over this ground, of decomposing, and composing, of trading the inflexible and simple for the modular and complex, and back again. It's basically the history of systems design.In fact, what field could possibly be more exhausted, more picked over, more thoroughly explored, than systems architecture? The answer, of course, is organizational design. The EnterpriseWe all experience frustration in our lives. Those of us who work in "enterprises" experience a particular kind of frustration.What is an "enterprise"? A useful definition could be, an enterprise is an organization that you have had no impact on, and may never have any impact on. At a startup, or a smaller company, or for an engineer, an engineering-led, technology focused company, we may feel that we can alter or impact the structure, the nature of the company. At an established company, we are not sure. This seems to be the actual sense of "enterprise" in tech parlance — companies that do not change, or struggle to change. And this makes sense. What else would an enterprise be, but an institution, a system, that transcends the humans who constitute it. Those humans come and go, but the enterprise is precisely that which remains, which resists change. Structure, culture, processes, brand, habits, patterns, etc. This is by design, but it makes the enterprise a transhuman entity, and that can be challenging for the humans wrapped up inside it.So the frustration that we feel is the feeling of not being able to control our environment. Interestingly, this frustration is felt by all, at every level — the CEO, the development manager, the strategy SVP, the consultant, even the legal team. It's a defining characteristic of being human to want to influence your environment. And as a species, we have been very successful at that. However, if you work in an "enterprise", you probably feel powerless over your environment. Your environment seems to be immutable. ImmutabilityThis is also a characteristic, or more accurately a design goal, of information systems. The trend is against processes being able to manipulate or alter their environments, and towards immutability as a characteristic of the runtime environment.In the first age of systems, processes were the masters of their environment. One process ruled, while it ran, writing files, creating whole directory structures, starting or destroying other processes, opening sockets or device files and broadcasting to the world, "I am alive". "Hello World." They could even terminate and stay resident. Processes were like gods, or at least heroes. This was the heroic age of information systems.Today, mutable environmental variables, local storage, direct access to system resources, do not have a place in modern systems. These old forms are the clumsiest modes of interprocess communication, suitably deprecated, akin to leaving a broken stick in the path, or a pile of bones at the bend in the river. Processes are more like foot-soldiers, or information workers, passing messages, inbox to outbox, and otherwise generally told not to touch anything.So for those of us living in an enterprise, what do we make of the challenge? We have a drive to change our environment — it is our nature. No one told us the heroic age was over — in fact we still hear the myths told and retold. But clearly things have changed. So is our impulse to change our world misguided? Is it indulgent?

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