The voice of Frederick Brooks

Part of my weekend bicycling sound track was a 2007 talk by Frederick Brooks, author of the seminal book The Mythical Man-Month. I found it on John D. Cook’s blog, which sums up the themes of the talk and of Brooks’ new book, The Design of Design. Here, amusingly, is the result of a Worldcat Find a copy in the library for that book:

Something tells me that inter-library loan may not work in this case!

Anyway, as noted in John D. Cook’s blog, the theme of the talk (and of the book) is how to maintain the conceptual integrity of a large and complex design. Although Brooks fiercely opposes the waterfall model, he asserts that you do need to have a single mind — or pair of minds — running the show.

Assuming that’s the case, how do you organize the work? At one point, reflecting on the task of reinventing the air traffic control system, Brooks argues that the open source model could not produce a system he’d trust. Challenged on that point in the Q and A, he allowed that the Linux development process has cathedral-like as well as bazaar-like aspects.

What if you’re not part of the aristocracy? What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning and go to work? Here Brooks makes a wonderful point. The many who implement designs can have as much scope for creative expression as the few who specify the designs. If we fail to teach and celebrate that, shame on us.

I also loved Brooks’ take on remote collaboration. When he looked at the literature he found it was always about tools for document-sharing and telepresence, never about the biological, social, and organizational issues that such tools might (or might not) address. He cites, by way of example, a separated team of engineers who have easy access to a world-class videoconferencing system but prefer to use screensharing in combination with a voice-only call.

This happens a lot, and we don’t yet understand all the reasons why. Clearly the emotional bandwidth of the voice channel dwarfs its network bandwidth. I am starting to wonder if that’s because mirror neurons can sync up over the voice channel. In any event, having read The Mythical Man-Month so long ago, it was delightful to finally hear the voice of Frederick Brooks.

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