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The Mythical Man-Month, a Book Review

Frederick Brooks' book The Mythical Man-Month Addison-Wesley, 1975) was revised in 1995 for its 20th anniversary. This is still a key book for anyone involved in a programming project. Brooks was manager of OS/360, a project that consumed 5000 man-years of effort at IBM, and describes his book as "my belated answer to Tom Watson's probing question as to why programming is hard to manage."

The essays in this book are concise, clear, and eminently readable. Brooks has a way of forcing you to question your implicit assumptions. In the title chapter on schedule slippage, he drives the reader humorously, but relentlessly, to this conclusion:

Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.

In another essay, Brooks points out:

Chemical engineers learned long ago that a process that works in the laboratory cannot be implemented in a factory in one step. An intermediate step called the pilot plant is necessary....In most [software] projects, the first system is barely usable. It may be too slow, too big, awkward to use, or all three. There is no alternative but to start again, smarting but smarter, and build a redesigned version in which these problems are solved.... Delivering the throwaway to customers buys time, but it does so only at the cost of agony for the user, distraction for the builders while they do the redesign, and a bad reputation for the product that the best redesign will find hard to live down. Hence, plan to throw one away; you will, anyhow.

The 20th anniversary edition includes all of the chapters of the original book, plus a lot of new material. The chapter "No Silver Bullet--Essence and Accident in Software Engineering" was first published in 1986. Brooks asserted that no single software engineering development would produce an order-of-magnitude improvement in programming productivity within ten years. While this paper caused a lot of rebuttal in the software engineering community, Brooks was right--there has been "No Silver Bullet."

The other chapters discuss why this is so and Brooks points out one of his mistakes in the first edition--"David Parnas Was Right, and I Was Wrong About Information Hiding." Brooks states, "I am now convinced that information hiding, today often embodied in object programming, is the only way of raising the level of software design."

If you create, maintain, manage, or are involved in part of the software engineering process, you must read The Mythical Man Month. From the hard-nosed advice to the enjoyable anecdotes, you will enjoy this book.

More ideas on software quality and productivity.

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