Saturday, 19 October 2019

Operating Manual for the Ship of Theseus

Over the last 5 or more years I've had kind of an abstinence from conferences and software architecture books. Industry focus was on Cloud, Serverless and ML, leaving system design stalling, with the occasional, rare exception (KNative, Learned Structures, ISA and Simon's ongoing quest for explainability come to mind).

Conference speakers still explain Agile, DevOps, ADR's, EDA and Resilience, while people still pile up tech debt and big balls of mud, just now using Serverless or Kubernetes. The 20 year anniversary edition of The Pragmatic Programmer, which I hold in my hands, says it is “just as relevant today as it was back then”. Given that I saw the limits of Agile, I became more interested in the product operations, SRE side of systems and how observability, explainability, human collaboration and supportability spins system evolution to converge towards simplicity (or not) and builds a community-centric narrative that hopefully enables, in the long term, better socio-technological structures.

Over the last year or so, though, I found myself surprised by an influx of interesting material, in particular in regards to bias, culture, empathy, failure, discovery, resilience (SRE) and risk awareness in orchestration complexity of socio-technical systems.

A welcome change from a long overdue self correction of VC-fueled get-rich-quick startups culture. Concrete examples are my favourite book Accelerate, which inspired a great Böckeler / Fowler talk at Craft Conf and a very entertaining self reflection by Tilkov, and other nice perspectives like George Fairbanks Continuous Design Talk and Nygard thinking about state, Videla's, Wichary's, Steenson's and Ullman's thoughts about weird languages, Design It! (and the 2nd edition of Release It!), but also some really great distributed systems research by Howard and Kleppmann challenging our perspective on concurrency, and new, humble ways to create frameworks.

Empathy for Entropy

It's not simply that Microservices have made microblogging-driven startups suddenly realize the value of BDUF. It rather is the agile move away from Enforcement towards Observation with better tools, empathetic user-centric techniques and ways of thinking about consistency and concurrency. It reminds me of my W-Jax talk 7 years ago, when I first read about Spanner and its formalization of time. When Kleppmann argues for OLEP and Local First, that the queue is the database, it reminds me how Spanner argues that the database is the queue. Both arrive at the same insight: That information and time are entangled, and that entropy or consistency are derived from that. As Howard beautifully analyzed, for our systems it’s easy to replace the concept of time with state transitions (Lamport clocks). This allows us to step away from seeing the system as uncontrollable, and us reactive, to focus on the real, human cause for entropy.