Thursday, 22 May 2008

The Mythical Man-Month

Phew, has it already been a month since my last post? There's no doubt about it, GTA IV is to blame. In any case, I haven't been slacking off completely. I just finished reading the rather short and positively ancient The Mythical Man-Month: essays on software engineering by Fred Brooks. This book is considered to be one of the classics. It appears in "must read" lists all the time, and is constantly references by software bloggers around the world.

Originally published in 1975, this book is older than me. I'm reading the 20th anniversary edition which has some added chapters, but the original contents are left as they were - and it sure does show. The book is more about software management than engineering and if offers several valuable ideas, but its also full of discussion that is simply not at all relevant to software engineering today.

The book makes the point that you can't rush software. Doubling your staff will not halve your schedule, and adding manpower to a late software project will probably just make it later. It tackles this concept that men and months are not interchangeable from a number of different angles, and while I consider this idea to be blindingly obvious today, I can appreciate it might not have been quite that way 33 years ago. The 20th anniversary edition contains the "No Silver Bullet" essay which was written about a decade after the first printing of the book. This essay claims that it is unreasonable to expect that any single technological or methodological advance will deliver an order of magnitude improvement to software productivity. Developing software is an inherently difficult complex process, and we can chip away at the difficulties from many different angles, and perhaps achieve order of magnitude improvements through combination of many tools and techniques, but there is no discovery waiting around the corner that will improve our software development productivity by a factor of 10.

I think these ideas are worth reading about, and the book has certainly broadened my perspective and given me insight to how people thought about software development many years ago. However, that said I am reluctant to recommend this book. MUCH of it talks about the practicalities of software development circa 1975 - so its filled with arcane meaningless terms from an era long gone. I couldn't help but laugh at the idea of embedding documentation into code having the downside that "you have to store more characters". I'm now wishing I was taking notes as I read because there were some real whoppers in there, stuff that really makes me appreciate how far we've come. But while some of it was funny, most of it was just snore worthy.

We need a modern replacement for this book. A text that communicates some of the old but worthwhile ideas along with some the new, such as iterative development. A text that I could give to someone else and not have them hand it back upon the first mention of some obscure mainframe operating system that I or they haven't heard of. And while I'm at it: a text that does not make the assumption of the existence of this abstract concept of "God" several times would also be nice - there is no place for that sort of thing in a software text. The man-month ain't the only concept mentioned in this book that I consider to be mythical.

Maybe such a book does exist, and I just don't know about it yet. If you think you've found it, be sure to let me know!

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