Fred Brooks (1931-2022)

I just learned that Fred Brooks has passed away.

If you are outside software development, it is unlikely that you have ever heard about him, but inside the field, he was a giant. He is not known as much for his technical achievements, though they were impressive, as his seminal work “The Mythical Man-Month“, first published in 1975, in which he made remarkable claims like “[a]dding manpower to a late software project makes it later”. It is also famous for expressing the concept that if it takes a pregnant person 9 months to give birth to a baby, adding 8 more people, won’t change the period of time to one month – thus addressing the concept of man-months as a concept, showing why it is nonsense in some situations.

The Mythical Man-Month is still a book that I recommend to people working in software development (I’d suggest getting the 20 year edition from 1995, which has 4 extra chapters).


  1. Some Old Programmer says

    The Mythical Man Month was a required text in my 1980s-vintage Computer Science coursework. IIRC the course was on planning disasters.

  2. Katydid says

    I also had to read the book in the 1980s for computer science, yet out away from school, managers are stuck in the idea that if it takes one person a month to code something, adding 3 more people will make it take a week.

    Pretty sure this is left over from the factory mindset: if it takes one person with tools standing at a bench a month to make a widget, you can add 3 other people with tools standing at 3 more benches all making widgets, and at the end of the month you’ll have four widgets.

    Sweatshop thinking.

  3. says

    Big Science thinks that way, too. It is effective to throw a dozen labs and a hundred researchers at a genome, for instance, to get the full sequence faster. Where it fails is that actually understanding that sequence and figuring out what to do with it doesn’t scale anywhere near as effectively.

    So what we get is lots of labs churning out gigabytes of data, because that’s what you can do with an army of grad students, but relatively little useful information. Not no information, but it takes more than simple repetitive technicals skills to do anything with it.