Freedom fosters responsibility

Posted by Chris on May 04, 2007

Intersection in Drachten, Holland

Take a look at the photo to the right. Notice anything specific about it? Here is a hint: think about enforcing rules. See it now? That is right, there are no lanes, road signs, pedestrian crossings or similar. Other than the give-way markings on the ground, the intersection is completely clear of anything that rules how you should act here.

The photo shows a “traffic calmed” roundabout in the city of Drachten, Holland. Most of the city centre is actually completely free of the traffic ruling items mentioned above. But does this not lead to a lot of incidents? Surely there is some meaning behind this idea, but how can this possibly work? The simple answer is that the lack of road signs and such leads people to such a crazy thing as to actually take eye contact with each other. Instead of taking an “I have the right to do this”-attitude, “people actually take responsibility and work together to avoid incidents”: How many accidents involving cars and pedestrians are not the result the pedestrian simply walking straight out onto a pedestrian crossing expecting any cars to stop. The fact that there is a sign that says it is a pedestrian crossing combined with a law that says cars should stop for pedestrians does not mean that every car will automatically stop! The only thing that this really means is that cars have a responsibility to stop for pedestrians, but pedestrians do not have a right to walk right out into the street.

Although I know analogies can be dangerous, the reason I mention this is that I came to think about it after having a discussion over lunch regarding programming languages and how the code turns out in different ones. The discussion started with “Martin”: talking about how he writes better code in C++ than he does when using C#. And I can vouch for his abilities in both languages, so it is not as simple as that. The reason, he said, was that C++ was more complex than C# and it is easier to get things wrong, so therefore he paid more attention to what he does when coding in C++. Instead of relying on the (sometimes dubiously) safe environment to help you, taking a step back to actually think for a second or two and make sure that what you just wrote not only solves whatever it should but is also meaningful to someone reading it later makes a huge difference.

The fears and skepticism people have about the lack of road signs in the Drachten intersections can be noted when developers skeptic to dynamic languages describe how they feel about them. “Does not the lack of structure make people do all sorts of crazy things? If someone can just open up a class at any time and modify a method (or add new ones), how can it possibly work out in a collaborative environment such as a typical software development project?” For the same reasons as the Drachten intersections lead to fewer accidents. By removing the “secure” environment of compile-time checking, people are actually forced to think and talk to eachother. Developers use better names for classes and methods, and also use tests to specify their intentions, both to the test runner and to other developers.

I want to use one last example. One practice common in agile development (and elsewhere of course) is continuous integration (CI). The idea is simple, integrate whenever any changes to the system are saved. Unfortunately it is also quite common to see this interpreted as “set up some CI server software, then we are done”. While a CI server can definitely be of use, people forget that “CI is really just an attitude”: and “has nothing to do with having a CI server”: The CI server becomes the road signs of the intersection. Instead of thinking in terms of what your responsibilities are when checking in, you trust the CI server to solve all problems for you.

To summarize: Be sure to not allow yourself or your team to get a false sense of security from processes and rules. Instead focus on the social parts of software development. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools is what it is all about.

Photo downloaded from “sociate’s flickr account”:, used under a “Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0″: license.


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