The Mythical Man-Month

“Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.”

Brooks’s Law

Sooner or later every developer learns about Brook’s Law, for me it was later, but still better than never. After the encounter and countless references to the book on the internet, I decided to read it for myself and see what it’s all about.

The original book came out in 1975 and the latest revision in 1995. I think it is important to set expectations right, and accept that the author wrote a lot from that perspective – good old days when the industry still debated “if-else block” vs “goto statement”. In addition, the book isn’t an easy read, lot of technologies/terminologies aren’t familiar to me and that made it harder to follow. However I don’t think any of that should be a showstopper, I say: “push through”!

Opinions are like assholes – everyone got one and I’m no different. However I’m really struggling to express my thoughts on this book. On one hand the book is quite insightful, on the other hand, for the lack of better word – irrelevant. On one hand human behaviour didn’t significantly change since 1975, on the other hand business did. Let me give you an example from my personal experience: 45 years after the book has been published, managers still think that adding new developers to meet a three-month deadline is a solution. Never mind that a good developer typically needs more than three months to even get up to speed on our projects. However, adaptation of scrum (or alike) methodologies and business acceptance of small value-adding iterations has changed the way developers schedule and deliver code. There is no more hiding, in every sprint something of a value must be developed, demoed and shipped.

I can grumble, agree and disagree with the author on several points, but I think it is meaningless and unfair. I think the book should be taken for what it is, and not some sort of a guide from the days long gone to the present generation. Nevertheless, perhaps some people must read it for the sake of not solving the same old problems, the same old way, that never worked anyhow. Perhaps everyone should read it and understand that not all IT problems uniquely belong to IT industry and an answer is readily available just outside of it. Perhaps I should stop rambling and admit: may be the book didn’t impress me as much as I hoped it would but at least I don’t feel any regrets spending my time with it.

In a nutshell:
-: Not an easy read if you aren’t familiar with terminology and technology of the past
-: Some irrelevant concepts
+: A lot of insight into software industry, some still hold true
+: Interesting references and opinions
+: Enjoyable, with certain expectations
=: I don’t think this book should be atop a reading list. However if you are curious and have time, I wholeheartedly recommend it. Don’t set any expectations, remember the book originated in 1975 and enjoy the essay.

Title: The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering
Author: Frederick Brooks

Notes & Quotes from the book, I couldn’t help myself but to take:

“Solutions to many IT problems already exist in other industries, but IT pro feel and act as those don’t apply.”

“Techniques proven and routine in other engineering disciplines are considered radical innovations in software engineering.”

“Self-Documenting Programs – a basic principle of data processing teaches the folly of trying to maintain independent files in synchronism. It is far better to combine them into one file with each record containing all the information both files held concerning a given key. Yet our practice in programming documentation violates our own teaching. We typically attempt to maintain a machine-readable form of a program and an independent set of human-readable documentation, consisting of prose and flow charts. The results in fact confirm our teachings about the folly of separate files. Program documentation is notoriously poor, and its maintenance is worse. Changes made in the program do not promptly, accurately, and invariably appear in the paper.”

“Long before any code exists, the specification must be handed to an outside testing group to be scrutinized for completeness and clarity. As Vyssotsky says, the developers themselves cannot do this: “They won’t tell you they don’t understand it; they will happily invent their way through the gaps and obscurities.””

“Day-by-day schedule slippage is harder to recognize, harder to prevent, and harder to make up than calamities. The first step in controlling a big project on a tight schedule is to have a schedule, made up of milestones and dates for them. Milestones must be concrete, specific, measurable events defined with knife-edge sharpness. A programmer will rarely lie about milestone progress, if the milestone is so sharp he can’t deceive himself.”

“Cosgrove advocates treating all plans, milestones, and schedules as tentative, so as to facilitate change. This goes much too far— the common failing of programming groups today is too little management control, not too much.”

“Intercommunication is worse. If each part of the task must be separately coordinated with each other part/ the effort increases as n(n-I)/2. Three workers require three times as much pairwise intercommunication as two; four require six times as much as two. If, moreover, there needs to be conferences among three, four, etc., workers to resolve things jointly, matters get worse yet. The added effort of communicating may fully counteract the division of the original task”

“The basic fallacy of the waterfall model is that it assumes a project goes through the process once, that the architecture is excellent and easy to use, the implementation design is sound, and the realization is fixable as testing proceeds. Another way of saying it is that the waterfall model assumes the mistakes will all be in the realization, and thus that their repair can be smoothly interspersed with component and system testing.”

“The first step is to accept the fact of change as a way of life, rather than an untoward and annoying exception. Cosgrove has perceptively pointed out that the programmer delivers satisfaction of a user need rather than any tangible product. And both the actual need and the user’s perception of that need will change as programs are built, tested, and used.”

“First, the man with strong management talent and strong technical talent is rarely found. Thinkers are rare; doers are rarer; and thinker-doers are rarest.”

“The job done least well by project managers is to utilize the technical genius who is not strong on management talent.”

“In tasks that can be partitioned but which require communication among the subtasks, the effort of communication must be added to the amount of work to be done.”

“In tasks that can be partitioned but which require communication among the subtasks, the effort of communication must be added to the amount of work to be done.”

“Failure to allow enough time for system test, in particular, is peculiarly disastrous. Since the delay comes at the end of the schedule, no one is aware of schedule trouble until almost the delivery date. Bad news, late and without warning, is unsettling to customers and to managers.”

“But false scheduling to match the patron’s desired date is much more common in our discipline than elsewhere in engineering. It is very difficult to make a vigorous, plausible, and job-risking defense of an estimate that is derived by no quantitative method, supported by little data, and certified chiefly by the hunches of the managers”

“The fate of WIMP: Obsolescence. Despite its excellencies, I expect the WIMP interface to be a historical relic in a generation. Pointing will still be the way to express nouns as we command our machines; speech is surely the right way to express the verbs. Tools such as Voice Navigator for the Mac and Dragon for the PC already provide this capability.”

“Men and months are interchangeable commodities only when a task can be partitioned among many workers with no communication among them”

“The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned.”

Frederick Brooks

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