“Adding Manpower to a Late Software Project Makes It Later”

(p. 24) Dr. Brooks had a wide-ranging career that included creating the computer science department at the University of North Carolina and leading influential research in computer graphics and virtual reality.

But he is best known for being one of the technical leaders of IBM’s 360 computer project in the 1960s.

. . .

Until the 360, each model of computer had its own bespoke hardware design. That required engineers to overhaul their software programs to run on every new machine that was introduced.

But IBM promised to eliminate that costly, repetitive labor with an approach championed by Dr. Brooks, a young engineering star at the company, and a few colleagues. In April 1964, IBM announced the 360 as a family of six compatible computers. Programs written for one 360 model could run on the others, without the need to rewrite software, as customers moved from smaller to larger computers.

. . .

The hard-earned lessons he learned from grappling with the OS/360 software became grist for his book “The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering.” First published in 1975, it became recognized as a quirky classic, selling briskly year after year and routinely cited as gospel by computer scientists.

The tone is witty and self-deprecating, with pithy quotes from Shakespeare and Sophocles and chapter titles like “Ten Pounds in a Five-Pound Sack” and “Hatching a Catastrophe.” There are practical tips along the way. For example: Organize engineers on big software projects into small groups, which Dr. Brooks called “surgical teams.”

The most well known of his principles was what he called Brooks’s law: “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.”

Dr. Brooks himself acknowledged that with the “law” he was “oversimplifying outrageously.” But he was exaggerating to make a point: It is often smarter to rethink things, he suggested, than to add more people. And in software engineering, a profession with elements of artistry and creativity, workers are not interchangeable units of labor.

In the internet era, some software developers have suggested that Brooks’s law no longer applies. Large open-source software projects — so named because the underlying “source” code is open for all to see — have armies of internet-connected engineers to spot flaws in code and recommend fixes. Still, even open-source projects are typically governed by a small group of individuals, more surgical team than the wisdom of the crowd.

For the full obituary, see:

Steve Lohr. “Frederick P. Brooks Jr., an Innovator of Computer Design, Dies at 91.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, November 27, 2022): 24.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Nov. 25, 2022, and has the title “Frederick P. Brooks Jr., Computer Design Innovator, Dies at 91.”)

The Brooks’s book mentioned above is:

Brooks, Frederick P., Jr. The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995.

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