Friday, July 30, 2010

Wired Interviews Fred Brooks

And there are many highlights.
Of course they start with his finest and most famous metaphor:
You can’t accelerate a nine-month pregnancy by hiring nine pregnant women for a month. Likewise, says University of North Carolina computer scientist Fred Brooks, you can’t always speed up an overdue software project by adding more programmers; beyond a certain point, doing so increases delays. Brooks codified that precept 35 years ago in a small technical book, The Mythical Man-Month, which he named after the flawed assumption that more manpower meant predictably faster progress.
His greatest contribution:
The most important single decision I ever made was to change the IBM 360 series from a 6-bit byte to an 8-bit byte, thereby enabling the use of lowercase letters. That change propagated everywhere.
Sadly it did not propagatae fast enough for the youthful me, and I engaged in major wrestling matches with the different computers I had to program for. Still - he was right, and probably should have gone farther except for the expense it would have incurred at the time.
The interviewer asks Brooks about why software is an area apparently resistant to productivity improvement and he says something I think is quite wise:
Software is not the exception; hardware is the exception. No technology in history has had the kind of rapid cost/performance gains that computer hardware has enjoyed. Progress in software is more like progress in automobiles or airplanes: We see steady gains, but they’re incremental.
In my shortish career in software I saw things improve enormously, often DESPITE the fact that the hardware guys, especially recently, were entirely happy to toss the performance improvement problem entirely onto the backs of the software guys (not unjustly, as they were just running out of simple ideas).
His finishing advice for those who want to create?
Design, design, and design; and seek knowledgeable criticism.


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