Wartime Metaphors for Software Development

Good generals retreat when they're in disadvantageous positions. From a secure base, they could organize measured attacks. Without a secure base, they were left exposed to annihilation.

Caesar built fortifications when his armies were camping. His enemies didn't always place the same emphasis on building defenses. Caesar defeated his enemies.

Strong fortifications helped him to secure his position. Maintaining a secure position enabled him to focus on the most important part of the battle... establishing secure and efficient supply lines. Hungry armies don't fight well.

Good generals retreat during battle itself. Undisciplined armies full of adrenaline easily charge, charge, and keep charging. A good charge becomes increasingly dangerous as it progresses. If the faction charging separates too far from the security of the main army, they can be easily surrounded and wiped out by the enemy. Faking retreat to entice undisciplined charges was a staple tactic of Genghis Khan.

How does this apply to business?

  • Build competitive moats to protect your market share
  • Protect your supply lines
  • Retreat?


Businesses can grow too quickly. As things go well, leadership may try to expand into new areas before properly securing their base. Expanding too rapidly leads to chaos. Business lines risk being overexposed to competition.

It's not just the business lines that are at risk, but also the good employees. The first soldiers to flee are the cavalry... noblemen and elites of society. The agile ones, with options.

How does this apply to software?

Build fortifications. Automated tests, obviously. Be more diligent than your competitors, and you'll live to code another day.

Your supply lines are your lifeblood. Don't skimp on CI/CD. If your world-changing features can't eat (get released), they'll either fight poorly, or not at all.

Strong fortifications are essential to healthy supply lines.

Don't build too fast. When you get away from your fortifications, you'll get wiped out when things take a bad turn, rather than being able to retreat to relative safety temporarily to regroup.

Don't build new features until existing rudimentarily fortified. Go back and refortify older and more central features. Your castle keep is your last defense. It should be rock solid. Too many features without adequate fortifications leaves your software exposed to competitors. The general can enact strategy with organized units. He cannot direct a mob, and a disorganized mob is an easy target.

When you're in a disadvantageous position, retreat (refactor!). Keep refactoring until you're in the advantageous position again. Fortify in stages... build a wooden wall, fortify that with rock, fortify that with towers. The longer you take to retreat, the more costly it becomes. You may have to leave behind siege equipment, cannons, or soldiers if you must eventually make a hasty retreat.

Don't keep marching toward the narrow pass with just-so-happen-to-be-perfect-ledges-for-archers on both sides simply because you want to "keep delivering value to customers". If your code is dead, it can't deliver value.