On software ownership

Software is hard to build: it requires a lot of attention and because it's written by humans it necessarily includes a notion of style. This in turns generate a lot of friction between software engineers within a same codebase because nobody writes code the same way and nobody wants to admit to the others style. The idea of writing "one" code has a collective mind isn't particularly seductive either.


Over lunch I thought of rather dark but interesting model to develop software: the Famous Flames Superformance Pattern.

James Brown, also known as the hardest working man in the show business (make sure to check out the Live At the Apollo 1963 where you can hear Fats Gonder introduce the man himself under this famous nickname) played with his band the Famous Flames.

The Famous Flames are one of the tightest band I've ever heard. They won't miss a beat, or half a beat, because they're playing for James Brown and he's got more soul than all the soul that's happened in music to this day.

Now the other reason they're really tight, is because James Brown was completely mad. He had incredibly high standards and expectations for his band and so he terrorised most of them, notably through the use of systematic fining on a missed note, unpolished shoes, etc, etc.

During shows, no matter how ecstatic the crowd was, he would instantly (and discreetly) extend a finger to signal a faulting musician, and it meant that musician would see his check cut off by 5 or 10 dollars at the end of the night. That's per mistake.

On the live album I mentioned above, the "price per finger" was between 50 and a 100 dollars, according to Bobby Byrd.

How does this relate to software?


It feels like developing software together can be excruciating sometimes. People have different opinions and it's really hard and exhausting to get to the bottom of metaphysical arguments about naming things, punctuation, software patterns, tooling, git strategy… all this bullsh*t.

Usually the person who wins is the one who can talk the other one out. Not necessarily be right, just talk the other person out.

Now in the Famous Flames Superformance Pattern, everyone is a Famous Flame and everyone starts off a certain generous financial baseline. The package differs based on seniority or whatever grade are in use within the organisation. Just like the Flames, there's only one pair of hands onto each instruments. Now turn the instruments into software components; the musical mistakes into software bugs and you have it!

A system where people feel responsible for their software and don't waste any time arguing about it. At any given time, any software unit is written by one single person. No collaboration within the boundaries of the unit. Whether it is picked up en-route or started from scratch, once it is assigned to an engineer they are responsible for each and every line that goes in it. No one writes code but the author.

If you write software and no bugs get reported, jackpot! You get your full package, hence the need for a generous baseline. People won't do great work for okay compensation.

If a couple bugs get reported, you get to hit a sweet spot where you still make decent money because you wrote relatively bug free software.

If you wrote software that caused a lot of bugs, then you get paid a fixed minimum amount, a depressing one, because you clearly can't architect software and shouldn't be protected from that fact.

It's cruel and probably infeasible but this sort of incentive quickly rewards the actually gifted writers and removes the ones that can't contribute good software to the organisation, effectively costing the business money. I emphasise "writers" because it fits a lot better with the idea of sole authorship, the idea of writing software with your own style and influences and producing art work that is a better reflection of your abilities.

For the case of people who aren't experienced yet (new hires for example), you can just allocate them to simpler projects or internal tools, and have softer bug fines. As your skills expand, you take on more pieces, or maybe move to another project (project transfer is allowed, git blame can help settle any retroactive bug).

Now this obviously has flaws, the first one being that it's quite inhumane. The other issues to work out:

  • all software interacts; some sort of impartial referee needs to define the interfaces between these projects to make sure they can be contained yet guaranteed to cooperate when chained together;
  • bug fines would probably be decided by the same committee;
  • people would probably leave really quick;
  • you could sabotage the organisation (if software is not reviewed)
  • once again: it's inhumane.

But it was fun to think about. I'm going back to addressing the comments on my PR.

Created: 2019-06-27 Thu 09:12