The Mythical Man-Month

I've decided it's time to do a little professional development.  In other words, stop putzing around with whatever new technology is "cool" these days (grumble, grumble kids with their Snapchats, and their Node.js, and their Dan Fogelberg) and get back to fundamentals.  That means design and architecture, development process, project management, quality controlThe Mythical Man-Month, 20th anniversary edition, documentation, and all those other things that are important, but not even remotely "hip".

To that end, I'll be doing some reading.  The first book on my list has been on my bookshelf for about 13 years - The Mythical Man-Month, by Fred Brooks.  I bought and started reading the 20th anniversary edition over a decade ago, but never got around to finishing it. 

In retrospect, I think I was just too inexperienced at the time really get the significance of the book.  After all, it might be a classic, but its's an old book (written in 1975) about an old project (much of it relates to developing OS/360).  How relevant could it be?  Especially once you get past the punch line of why the man-month is mythical - which is revealed in chapter two.

Now, after almost 14 years in tech, it's easy to see just how brilliant a book it is.  While there is some discussion of obselete methods and technologies, that's beside the point.  The Mythical Man-Month is still relevant because it isn't really about specific development techniques or technologies.  It's about the complications of managing and communicating with lots of people on a large project.  And while we've come a long way as an industry in the last 40 years, the "human nature" part of the equation hasn't really changed appreciably.

One of the nice things about this book is that Brooks clearly gets what it means to be a developer.  He starts the book with an essay on the joys and woes of the craft of programming, all of which are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago.  There are a number of other such insights sprinkled throughout the book.  My personal favorite is his statement that all programmers are optimists.  When you think about the process of estimation and how that usually turns out, this is the sort of insight that seems so blindingly obvious that you're suprised you didn't think of it yourself.

The third chapter, "The Surgical Team," was particularly interesting to me.  The proposal is essentially to treat building software less like building a bridge and more like performing surgery.  So, in other words, you'd have one senior deveoper act as the "surgeon" and he and a ore junio assistant perform all of the deliverable work.  The rest of the team supports him, doing the project management work, building supporting tools, serving as expert consultants, etc.  Since one top-notch programmer is supposedly ten times as productive as a mediocre programmer, having one of them do the work and nine other people support them gives you the same total productivity while reducing communication problems and maintaining design consistency.

One of Brooks' themes throughout the book is that the way to manage complexity is to maintain consistency of architectural vision.  That is, the overall system architecture should reflect as few viewpoints as possible, rather than being a mish-mash of the viewpoints of everyone who worked on it.  This plays into another major issue Brooks discusses: communication cost.  This is part of the reason the man-month is mythical - because not only does adding new people to a project add ramp-up time, it also increases the communication cost because you now have more people to keep in the loop.

I think one of the best things about the 20th anniversary edition is the added chapters.  For starters, they include Brooks' classic paper No Silver Buller - Essence and Accident in Software Engineering, which is a good read.  It also includes a chapter of analysis and reflection, in which Brooks discusses not only the legacy of the book, but also what he got right and wrong.  The things he got wrong are particularly interesting.  They include the classic "build one to throw away" quote, which Brooks says is wrong "not because it is too radical, but because it is too simplistic," being rooted in the waterfall model that was popular in the 1970's, as well as his notion of communicating the full project workbook to everyone.

Overall, The Mythical Man-Month is a very engaging and surprisingly easy read, especially given the volume of references.  While it contains some details that now seem like quaint digressions into the history of computing, the majority of the material is still relevant.  It definitely contains useful insights for anyone who is interested in the dynamics of running a large project.  I'm very glad I came back to it.

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