The Bus Rule

August 13th, 2013 by Adam Doucette

“What happens if you get hit by a bus?”

This question, though macabre, is something of an inside joke between office workers. Ask almost anyone who has worked in an office about “The Bus Rule”, and they will laugh knowingly. “The Bus Rule” can be explained as being short-phrase for ensuring someone else at your work understands your responsibilities and, in the unlikely case that you were to get hit by a bus, this person would be able to handle those responsibilities in your place. Although this morbid and dark analogy is not the most pleasant image to think about, ensuring your work can be continued in your absence (hopefully under less dramatic circumstances) is important to consider.

Here at Infrared5, we end the workweek with Beer:30, where we lounge in our office’s living room and unwind together from the busy week. This past Friday, while discussing upcoming vacations and delegating responsibilities, “The Bus Rule” was brought up several times. Almost in unison, we looked at each other and said “what a horrific analogy!” Most of us had heard the expression used without explanation. It caused me to wonder- what is the origin of “The Bus Rule”?

The origins of this harsh cliche are fairly unclear. In an article for Slate, author Juliet Lapidos took a look at the phrase “hit by a bus” when President Obama used it in 2009 in reference to health insurance without a single payer system, saying “”because there’s always going to be somebody out there who thinks they’re indestructible and doesn’t want to get health care … and then, unfortunately … they get hit by a bus, end up in the emergency room, and the rest of us have to pay for it.” Lapidos had the same type of interest we had and decided to research into the origins of “The Bus Rule”. Lapidos found the earliest reference of the phrase was in a Joseph Conrad 1907 Novel, The Secret Agent as it read “but just try to understand that it was a pure accident; as much an accident as if he had been run over by a bus while crossing the street” speaking to the rare chance of that occurring. Since then it has been used in scenarios from retail marketing to political campaigns, and has become a collectively accepted figure of speech.

Many developers have heard of a slight variation on this concept, “The Bus Factor”. Our good friend Wikipedia describes ‘The Bus Factor’ as the number of developers who would need to be incapacitated to send the project into such disarray that it would not be able to proceed (as the source code would be unfamiliar to others not familiar with the project). The higher “The Bus Factor”, the more developers would have to be incapacitated before the project would be unable to proceed.

Infrared5 tries to keep its “Bus Factor” high. When our teams are working on projects, having developers and designers who can pick up for other team members should they, well, have to miss some time (trying to keep it more positive here), is crucial in our line of work. Daily scrums among project teams, making sure team members can pick up where others leave off, and also making sure code reviews are done regularly can help ensure a project can be seen through to its completion, even in the event of a “bus accident”.

Needless to say, ensuring others can takeover project should a team member have to miss time unexpectedly is crucial in all work environments. Although “The Bus Rule” does sound a bit catastrophic, it sums up a necessity we see in our daily work environment. In her article, Lapidos does mention that only 10 pedestrians and bicyclists died in 2007 from actually getting hit by a bus, compared to 5,400 who were killed by all vehicle types. Still, “The Bus Rule” paints the picture in so many minds for making sure others can cover responsibilities should a team member be absent due to unexpected circumstances.

Got an opinion or story relating to the bus rule…we’d love to hear it! Share in our comments

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One Response to “The Bus Rule

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