The Art of War Applied To Software Development

Software developer teamwork

by Jose Maldonado

If you work in the software industry, it’s likely that you have heard about the divide and conquer design paradigm, which basically consists of recursively splitting a problem into two or more sub-problems (divide), until these become simple enough to be solved directly (conquer).

What you might not know is that this paradigm originates from an old political strategy (the name is derived from the Latin saying divide et impera) that suggests it is possible to maintain control over one’s subordinates or subjects by encouraging dissent between them.

This strategy has been used by countless politicians and military leaders throughout history, such as Julius Caesar (who used it during the Gallic Wars to defeat the militarily strong Gauls) and Napoleon (the French artillery expert would divide the enemy troops so no portion was stronger than his own troops, and then disrupt their communications, impeding enemy efforts to coordinate and execute attacks).

However, the divide and conquer rule is not the only political strategy that can be applied to software development. Although politics and warfare have little to do with software development, just like politicians and generals, developers must lead subordinates, coordinate efforts between teams, find the best strategies to resolve problems, and administer resources.

The Art Of War: Ancient principles applied to Software development

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War principles
Sun Tzu’s principles and teachings have practical applications in politics, business, sports, and software development.

The Art of War is an ancient military treatise written in the fifth century B.C. and attributed to Sun Tzu (“Master Sun”, also spelled Sunzi), an ancient Chinese military strategist, whose theories had a profound influence on both Eastern and Western philosophy.
Despite its age, the text is still included in the syllabus at many military schools in East Asia and it’s listed as a recommended reading in some military academies in the West. The text is divided into 13 chapters, each one devoted to a different aspect of warfare.

However, in addition to warfare, Sun Tzu’s principles and teachings have practical applications in politics, business, sports, and, believe it or not, software development. In fact, you might just be applying some of these principles in your daily routine, without even knowing their origins.

Detailed below, you will a find a brief list of basic tactics and tips explained in the Art of War. They can probably be applied to your job in the software industry, or any of a number of other industries.

Time Is Crucial In Any Campaign

Chapter II, paragraph 2

“When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped.”

This principle can be applied to software development, as a rule describing the relationship between the length of development cycles and the developer’s morale.

If a group of developers work on the same projects for months, with no clear goals or end in sight, they may become frustrated and their productivity may decline.

Technology roadmap
Divide your development roadmap into easily achievable goals and milestones. It’s good for morale.

Software development is an intellectual endeavour, so motivation is the main fuel for productivity. Working every day without perceiving that your work is generating real results can be very demotivating.
As indicated in some agile methodologies, the development roadmap should be divided into several goals and milestones, which the team might be able to achieve in short timeframes, and they are going to give them a sense of progress and achievement.

Chapter II, paragraph 18

“In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.”

This phrase can be interpreted in two ways:

First, it can be seen as a precursor of the UNIX philosophy: Write programs that do one thing and do it well. When developing software, you must always keep in mind the main objective of the program, the key feature that it provides, or the biggest problem that it solves, and ensure proper implementation.

Sometimes you might get inspired and think of a really cool feature to add, but do not forget that applications that have lot of infrequently used features have a disparaging name: bloatware.

Second, the statement may also be considered as a precursor for one of the lean software development principles: Deliver as fast as possible.

The sooner you deliver software without major defects, the sooner you will get feedback from the client, and you will be able to incorporate the changes into the next iteration.

If on the other hand, you deliver non-working software, you will miss out on valuable feedback, because clients won’t get a chance to test it properly. This will make the next stage of development more difficult, or impossible in situations where your next iteration depends on customer feedback.

No Leadership, No Results

Chapter III, paragraph 11

“Now the general is the bulwark of the State; if the bulwark is complete at all points, the State will be strong; if the bulwark is defective, the State will be weak.”

This quote describes the importance of the role of the manager in a development team: the success of a project depends on the strength of all people involved, and the manager is the bulwark of the project. Responsibility starts at the top.

Developer Team Leader
Responsibility starts at the top. If your team lead is bad, no amount of talented engineers will help.

Even though developers frequently work alone (each sitting behind a computer, with limited communication with coworkers), that does not mean that they don’t need good leadership. Project managers are in charge of keeping the team on track, ensuring effective communication and dispute resolution, and leaders, obviously, define the priorities of the project (among other tasks), so their role should not be underestimated. Neither should their responsibility if something goes wrong. Imagine what would happen to a military leader whose unit failed to perform its duty in the field of battle?

A team can produce great software even if it has a few bad apples in development positions, but that’s unlikely to happen if the project manager is the bad apple, no matter how many rockstar developers the team has.

Chapter VI, paragraph 28

“Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”

Sometimes, when starting a project, it’s tempting to use the same set of technologies we used in previously successful projects (the same programming language, the same libraries, the same server, etc). However, unless the requirements of the new projects are exactly the same as previous ones, this might be the wrong approach.

In programming, as in most domains, the panacea (a supposed remedy capable of curing all diseases) does not exist. There is no single combination of technologies that you can use for solving all problems; each technology has its upsides and downsides.

Of course, learning a new programming language or using an unknown API might initially be expensive but in the long term, the quality of the software will be superior and you will become a better developer.

Chapter XIII, paragraph 27

“Hence it is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for purposes of spying, and thereby they achieve great results. Spies are a most important element in war, because on them depends an army’s ability to move.”

This phrase may be interpreted as the importance of using monitoring tools and logging libraries during the maintenance phase.

Although sometimes clients might not think so, development does not end when you get a stable and fully tested release. Software is always evolving, either by fixing bugs, adding new features or improving efficiency.

And there is no better source of information for knowing what changes to make than having spies monitoring the software in production environments, checking which features are used the most, the most common errors and the lengthiest operations.

Error reports, logging entries and usage data are fundamental for detecting bugs, identifying bottlenecks and other issues since it is not always possible to reproduce the same conditions in controlled testing environments.

Teamwork And Motivation

Chapter X, paragraph 24

“He who advances without seeking fame, Who retreats without escaping blame, He whose one aim is to protect his people and serve his lord, The man is a jewel of the Realm.”

Basically, this is the ancient Chinese version of “there’s no I in team”. It is more important to work together with others rather than to pursue personal gain.

Software development is a complex activity that requires developers to work effectively as a team. A good developer is not the one who fixes the most bugs, implements the most features or finishes assignments ahead of schedule; a good developer is the one who helps the team reach its goals.

Software developer teamwork
Teamwork wins battles. Remember, the best developers are inspiring individuals who help other team members reach their objectives

Claiming credit for everything you’ve done, not recognizing your errors or blaming others for them, or calling yourself a code ninja might fool some inexperienced managers and might even get you a raise, but you will become a counterproductive member of your team.

Chapter VII, paragraph 21

“Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.”

This phrase indicates the importance of team development meetings, such as those proposed by agile methodologies.

When working on a team, it is important to discuss any major changes before implementing them. It doesn’t matter if you are the team leader, or if you are the person with the most experience of the subject, you should always talk with, or at least inform, the rest of the team.

Remember that other developers could give you insights into unfamiliar parts the software. This means they could start implementing the changes faster than expected, because they could be fully aware of the effects of said changes.

Chapter X, paragraph 25

“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”

This quote indicates the importance of motivation, a principle of management that is sometimes forgotten by managers and team leaders. Motivated developers will write better code, work faster, commit less errors and be more willing to put in extra hours.

Motivation must be generated by managers, by taking genuine interest in their subordinates, listening to them, caring about their work-life balance, building positive work environments and caring about their career paths.

Also, you should not mistake motivation with remuneration. Recent studies demonstrates that money do not motivate most workers, money is mostly good at attracting and retaining employees, but not at make them happy about their jobs. So raises and promotions should not be seen as motivational tools.

Thinking Outside The Box

Chapter V, paragraphs 7 to 9

“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.”

“There are not more than five primary colors, yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.”

“There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.”

One of the good things about programming is that the possibilities are endless; you can develop basically wherever you want (at least, as long is not an NP-complete problem).

Mobile apps, websites, games, desktop applications… if you know programming, all of them are within your reach.

talented Developer
If you’re a talented developer, you need to think outside the box. The box is there to prevent incompetent people from wrecking stuff. It’s not for you.

Chapter III, paragraph 1

“In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to capture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.”

When working on a project with a large code base, it is common to find modules or sections of code that have been implemented with bad practices or by using deprecated libraries. Although it might be tempting to erase (or destroy) this code, it might not be the best idea for several reasons:

Legacy code is not necessarily bad, sometimes it is good code that was written when other methodologies and technologies were considered the way to go. However, just because it is old doesn’t mean that it is not working.
You might lose time fixing code that still works instead of focusing on fixing other, more critical parts of the code.
Unless you are really sure of what you are doing, replacing a section of code that works means you are risking introducing new errors or bugs.
This does not mean that the phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a good strategy, but that every project has priorities, goals and time constraints. So, if you find code that could be improved, discuss it with the rest of the team or with the project manager in order to figure out when to optimize it.

Chapter VIII, paragraph 3

“There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must not be attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.”

Even it does not say it directly, we could interpret this principle as a warning to avoid anti-patterns.

Although using an anti-pattern may resolve a short-term issue, you should remember that in the long-term it is going to be counter-productive. So, no matter how much time you save, how many bugs you fix or how convenient it is for you, avoid them.

Still, there are times you may be tempted to use an anti-pattern to resolve an urgent task, promising yourself you will implement a proper fix when you have more time, but remember one of Murphy’s laws: All quick fixes become permanent changes.


Although developing software is different from commanding soldiers in war or leading a country, all that they must solve problems that require teamwork, good leadership, efficiency and long-term solutions.

However, the Art of War is not the only book which contains principles that may be applied to software development. Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, is an example.

In fact, there are many quotes from Machiavelli that are still relevant. Try guessing which are the corresponding principles in the world of software development.

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