Archive for May 2017

The mythical Brooks law

(First published on the CACM blog.)

A book by Laurent Bossavit [1] lists what he calls “leprechauns” of software engineering: pearls of conventional wisdom that do not necessarily survive objective analysis. Whether or not we agree with him on every specific example, his insights are fruitful and the general approach commendable: it is healthy to question revered truths.

A revered truth not cited in his book but worth questioning is “Brooks’ Law” from The Mythical Man-Month [2]. Disclosure: I never cared much for that book, even when I read it at the time of its first publication. I know it is supposed to be a font of wisdom, but with one exception (the “second-system effect”, which actually contradicts some of the book’s other precepts) I find its advice either trivial or wrong. For those readers still with me after this admission of sacrilege, one of the most quoted pronouncements is the modestly titled “Brooks’ Law” according to which adding manpower to a late project makes it later.

Like many unwarranted generalizations, this supposed law can hold in special cases, particular at the extremes: you cannot do with thirty programmers in one day what one programmer would do in a month. That’s why, like many urban legends, it may sound right at first. But an extreme example is not a general argument. Applied in meaningful contexts, the law is only valid as a description of bad project management. If you just add people without adapting the organization accordingly, you will run into disaster. True, but not a momentous discovery.

The meaningful observation is that when a team’s size grows, communication and collaboration issues grow too, and the manager must put in place the appropriate mechanisms for communication and collaboration. Also not a strikingly original idea. Good managers know how to set up these mechanisms. Such an ability is almost the definition of  “good manager”: the good manager is the one to whom Brooks’ Law does not apply. Anyone with experience in the software industry has seen, along with disasters, cases in which a good manager was able to turn around a failing project by, among other techniques, adding people. The tools and methods of modern software engineering and modern project management are of great help in such an effort. Pithy, simplistic, superficial generalizations are not.

I thought of the matter recently when chancing upon Nathan Fielder’s Maid Service video [3]. (Warning: Fielder is sometimes funny — and sometimes not — but always obnoxious.) While programming is not quite the same as house cleaning, there is still a lesson there. With good organization, a competent manager can indeed reduce time, perhaps not linearly but close, by multiplying the number of workers.

One leprechaun dispatched, many to go.


[1] Laurent Bossavit:  The Leprechauns of Software Engineering – How folklore turns into fact and what to do about it, e-book available here (for a fee, with a free preview).

[2] Fred Brooks: The Mythical Man-Month – Essays on Software Engineering, Addison-Wesley, 1975, new editions 1982 and 1995.

[3] Nathan for You: Maid Service, video available here.

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