The mythical assembly line

Andy Walker
6 min readJan 19, 2024

The leadership dream that’s so harmful to software engineering teams

Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

One of the things that leaders struggle with as they get more senior is the loss of control and visibility into what their teams are doing. Along with this comes a loss of empathy to the practice and art of building software. There is a strong desire to want to measure and therefore manage the software engineering process and to standardise the metrics and reporting of how teams build software. Companies will happily sell executives magic bullets for this which will, in turn be greedily lapped up by execs.

The reason for this is the fallacy that software engineering can be treated as an assembly line. The motivation behind this is straightforward, if we can turn software engineering into an assembly we should theoretically get the following benefits:

  • Standardised processes and measurements mean decision making can be centralised and optimised. This gives executives the ability to have more oversight and therefore greater decision making power. Once we have metrics we can set targets and optimise for throughput. Throughput and control are seen as the desired outcome.
  • Software engineers are expensive. If we can simplify the process of software engineering then we can replace or move them around without harming the efficiency of the line. We can pay them less money so we get cost savings which in turn makes us some combination of more competitive or increases the value of our share options.

On the surface this sound like a very good thing to do — after all a combination of control, throughput and cost savings is basically the wet dream of anyone in an executive position. It’s not hard to see how the lure turning software engineering into an assembly line makes a siren call to those in authority. And executives are willing to be many shades of heavy handed in the pursuit of this.

If we look back in history to the birth of the assembly line it’s clear that there are potentially huge benefits to this approach. However, as with many nostalgic dreams it’s easy to only look at the benefits without looking at the whole story. So, let’s start with the birth of the assembly line — the Ford Model T. Henry Ford’s epiphany was to look at meat packing plants and change the approach in making cars so…

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Andy Walker

Interested in solving complex problems without complexity and self sustaining self improving organisations.