The mythical man-month

September 22, 2013

Another software development classic. My colleague Erik read it before me and posted good thoughts about it. Now, I too have read the origins of Brooks' law (adding people to a late project makes it later) and of the lack of silver bullets, and I seem to be of refreshingly different focus in my thoughts. Where Erik mostly wrote on how things have changed since the book was written, I find myself struck by all the things which have not. Even though the methods have gone from physical to digital and been dramatically sped up in the process, it seems to me that we all work in pretty much the same ways and can gain something from thinking about the ways in which we do not.

The most notable case in point is the mythical waterfall model of software design. Even Brooks himself comments (there are extra chapters at the end written for the twentieth anniversary edition which reflect on the old content) on how he feels solutions and problems focused on a waterfall workflow take too much space and may not have aged well. I feel there is a lot less of it in the book than Brooks does. Even when Brooks writes of different stages of a project, he talks about how they can often run in parallell and how things flow back and forth between stages and groups as the project goes on. Quite simply, there seems to be a lot of iteration going on. On top of that, I also feel about as many shades of agility as one might concievably squeeze into a huge project with many people and the tools of fifty years ago. People are split into small teams, the architects do not sound too far from product owners, the role of managers seems decisively facilitating and so on. Not only that, many technical solutions described are fascinatingly direct ancestors to modern-day conveniences such as version control systems, documentation generation, collaborative editing and so on. Fast-forward Brooks' OS/360 project into the 2010's, changing nothing but the technical tools and I have a hunch it would look and run in a very modern fashion. Small wonder; after all, the people to be managed have not changed at all, and they are what really make up any project.

Perhaps my appreciation comes in some part from just finishing Code complete. The mythical man-month is taking another step back in time - the memories of more recent thinkin still fresh - and finding out a bit more about how thoughts went closer to the start of recorded history. Turns out they went much like they do nowadays. The scenery on the stage changes all the time, but the play is much the same. Just another thing Brooks was right about, and got into words in a charming way.