Just came across a software development organizational theory called Programmer Anarchy, or Developer Anarchy, in a podcast by Software Engineering Daily. Fred George and Antonio Terreno developed the theory back in 2010 as sort of an “Extreme Agile” guerilla-style model to trim fat from a software development organization.

The theory seems to have a Marxist flavor, in that it seeks to eliminate the roles of the capitalist and bourgeois in favor of maximum productivity. Just as a proletarian revolution creates a new kind of state that empowers workers, Programmer Anarchy creates a new kind of organization that empowers software developers, perhaps at the expense of workers of other functions in the organization. Parallel to the political analogy, this model probably works best for a company at its infant stage.

At its heart, Programmer Anarchy might be closer to the idea of “creative destruction,” developed into an economic idea by Joseph Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. The term “anarchy” has a very specific meaning in politics, although the specificity and intensity of the word has somewhat diluted with its frequent use in popular culture. The branding of the theory is sort of a hyperbole and a marketing gimmick; perhaps “Programmer Liberation” might be better in terms of sensitivity, but then again, the word “liberation” has its own controversies.

Individual angle: career development

Compared to traditional organizational structures, this model seems to foster a more holistic environment for individual career development. It promotes continuous learning by doing, and provides a high degree of freedom for doing so, provided that production goals are met.

This rings true for many modern professions, particularly in fields with rapidly changing landscape, such as media and technology. In the case of technology,  there is the constant race to the top for funding and market share. In the case of media, technology is responsible for shaking out a lot of media jobs, in the transition from print to digital.

“When your skill becomes commodity, and people put spreadsheets together and tell you what rates to charge,” George said. “This is when you lose your jobs to the offshore firms.”

Which is roughly how large corporations view their employees: a figure on a spreadsheet to be “streamlined.” That said, only high-performing and highly committed individuals can benefit from the Programmer Anarchy model. In this model, virtually all support roles (quality assurance, project management, business analyst) are permanently eliminated. Only those with high-level skills in software development will remain.

Organizational angle: efficiency

The traditional way is to keep people who are specialized at something to do only that thing, and absolutely nothing else. There is more friction against getting things done, and there are hand-off costs between specialists, because people have to spend time communicating to each other. The more people you have, this process repeats the more, and more man-hours are spent. Programmer Anarchy speeds up the workflow by removing the hand-off costs.

It dissolves the bureaucracy that sometimes prevents things from getting done. In a more traditional setting, a non-developer internal client might rely on a developer to resolve a problem, and no developer would dare to do a thing until a “user story” has been entered into a Jira ticket. This means you need to talk to at least three “managers” before everyone would even know what’s going on.

Developments

Terreno, one of the authors of the original paper for the theory, reported mixed results in 2012, two years into the Programmer Anarchy experiment. George is still promoting the model pretty hard, and I’d be interested to see where it goes.