RIP Fred Brooks

Fred Brooks passed away this month. I first wrote about him on this blog in April 2007, right after I had finished reading his seminal book on software engineering, The Mythical Man-Month. I was about 2 years into my career as a software engineer at that point. How time flies!

I thought it might be interesting to pull out my dog-eared copy of the book and reflect on a few of my favorite concepts and how they've borne out in my career 15 years on.

The Mythical Man-Month

First off is the titular concept from the book, in which Brooks's Law is coined.

Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.

I will say that in my career, I've only seen one project where bodies were hurled at a late project to hasten its completion. Interestingly, that was also the latest project I've ever seen in my career. 

Thankfully, my experience has been that Brooks's Law has permeated amongst the managers I've worked with—if not in name, they at least intuitively understood that they couldn't just add more people to a project to get it done faster.

The Second-System Effect

I've seen this play out several times in my career. The idea that we'll replace the hacky system we developed before we knew better with one where we take our time and "get it right" this time.

As he designs the first work, frill after frill and embellishment after embellishment occur to him. These get stored away to be used "next time." Sooner or later the first system is finished, and the architect, with firm confidence and a demonstrated mastery of that class of systems, is ready to build a second system.

This second is the most dangerous system a man ever designs.

The general tendency is to over-design the second system, using all the ideas and frills that were cautiously sidetracked on the first one.

It's easy to forget that just because we have a lot of ideas for improvements that not all of them are worth doing.

No Silver Bullet

I would dare say that most software engineers who have heard of Fred Brooks, found their way to him via his essay No Silver Bullet.

There is no single development, in either technology or management technique, which by itself promises even one order of magnitude improvement in productivity, in reliability, in simplicity.

Not only are there no silver bullets now in view, the very nature of software makes it unlikely that there will be any.

Personally, the message of No Silver Bullet is so ingrained in me as a software engineer, that I don't consciously think about where it came from very often, although it colors my world view constantly.

Every time I see a headline on Hacker News about Framework X vs. Framework Y, or Language A vs. Language B, I understand intuitively how little they can possibly impact the success of a software project.

When I wrote my post Stack Chasers vs. Evergreens in 2018, I don't think I was even aware that I was channeling No Silver Bullet that I had read over a decade earlier. It was in my bones at this point that technological solutions for improving the art of software engineering are inherently, severely limited.

Brooks's treatment of essential complexity vs. accidental complexity had such an impact on me, that I reference it when approaching challenges in my own life that have nothing to do with software engineering or my career at all.

The Mythical Man-Month is holding up amazingly well in 2022. I can't think of any other nearly 50-year-old book written about computer software that is still so relevant and insightful.

Thank you, Fred! R.I.P. And get a copy of The Mythical Man-Month if you haven't already read it.