#Review – The Mythical Man-Month

“There is no Silver Bullet.”

In 2008 IBM did a study of large IT projects that showed that nearly 60 percent of them fail. For the majority of these, the problem was people.

This isn’t news.

In 1975, Fred Brooks published The Mythical Man-Month based on his experience as an IBM project manager and as a world-class computer scientist and software engineer. It detailed the multiple reasons for the high failure rate of I.T. projects and proposed solutions.

I bought my copy in the early 90’s. I was working at AT&T doing I.T. support and I was volunteered for an I.T. rearchitecture. It was a large project, involving the re-design of an entire call center and included hardware and software upgrades as well as business process re-engineering. It was my first project and I wanted to know more about this process so, as I usually do, I bought a book.

The title comes from the then-standard practice of measuring the size of a job. So if I estimated a particular project at twelve man-months, that would mean that one man could do it in a year, six in half a year and if you gave me a team of twenty-four I’d finish it in two weeks.

The problem, Brooks proposed, was that while the man-month is a good estimate for project cost, it’s terrible for measuring the time and resources needed to complete the task. As he himself put it:

The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned.

Despite the complexity of the topic, The Mythical Man-Month is surprisingly readable and contains valuable insights culled from Brooks’ decades of experience. He details how to assemble a successful project team, best practices for inter-project communications and how to manage project documentation. The book was reprinted to celebrate its twentieth anniversary and, with some modifications to allow for technological change it’s still relevant today.

Reference: Brooks, Frederick P. The mythical man-month. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1975.


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