Review: The Mythical Man-Month

Fred Brooks’s The Mythical Man-Month is a book that software designers often hear mentioned in respectful tones.  This is Fred Brooks, one of the architects of the old mammoth IBM operating systems of the 1970’s discussing his lessons learned from those projects and applying them to general software engineering.  It is rightly praised for spending the lion’s share of its content on coordinating people rather than coordinating computers.

Academically, it lives up to its reputation quite well.  The edition I have includes retrospective chapters written 10 and 20 years after the initial publication.  In one of these Brooks mentions asking an airplane row-mate who did not know him and was reading The Mythical Man-Month what the fellow thought of it.  The fellow replied that there was nothing in it he didn’t already know.  While Brooks is disappointed, I think it is high praise.  He has taken an arcane topic and made it accessible to the point where readers think they’ve had all these ideas themselves.  By and large they haven’t.

While it is well worth reading and understanding this book if you have any interest in managing large scale creative endeavors there is no question that it is a product of its time.  Discussions of productivity are given in terms of machine instructions and cautions about overflowing resident memory abound.  PL/I is put forth as the only viable operating system programming language.  For the student of computing it is a fascinating look at how these technologies – many of them obsolete – were viewed by their contemporaries.  While these examples may confuse modern readers, the fundamental ideas are put forth with such clarity that the ancient examples are more an interesting side light than a barrier to understanding.

It is also amazing to see how Brooks unapologetically refers to the Bible and religious teachings.  He advocates two-person superior/subordinate programming teams and while he makes an excellent technical argument for the arrangement, it is jarring to see the topic annotated in a summary with “Note God’s plan for marriage.”  The technical arguments do not rest on theology, but it is surprising to modern eyes to see the references.

Overall, this is a classic that deserves its reputation and adds the joys of a unique voice and  historical perspective.

Strongly recommended.  (A must for software people.)

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