Chesterton's fence is not yours to remove

Simon Willison, the creator of Django (the Python-based web framework, not the jazz musician or the movie), tweets:

NNIH: Not-Not-Invented-Here syndrome, where new engineers at an organization attempt to replace in-house solutions with off-the-shelf packages without understanding the process that lead to the custom solution

One of the replies to this tweet points out that this is known as the Chesterton’s Fence Principle, which I’d never heard of before. And I love a good principle, as you’ll know if you’ve been reading along with these emails.

The American Chesterton Society website explains that the idea was used by John F. Kennedy, and comes from Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing. It’s fun to read because of Chesterton’s wonderful way with words:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

I’m determined to use this exact quote in a conversation about software at some point in the future.

All the best,

– Jim

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