Book review: The mythical man-month

After nearly two years of procrastination, I finally finished reading Fred Brook’s classic “The mythical man-month: essays on software engineering”. It has lots of useful insights on software project management and development. Rather than making a summary, I’ll just go over the pivotal concept found in the book: conceptual integrity.

The author goes at great lengths in how to achieve conceptual integrity in our software products. From my understanding, he considers conceptual integrity as a user-centered view of the software system; and, therefore, it’s something deeply connected to ease of use. For the author, this is the most important thing to consider in system design. There are severe challenges that stem from large programming projects, where division of labor can make it harder to preserve conceptual integrity. And that’s why he suggests the role of the architect, who is the person responsible to envision the system as a whole and make sure the conceptual integrity will be preserved. As I mentioned, Brooks used this concept primarily to talk about the software product as perceived by its users. In my view, the idea of conceptual integrity is one also to be pursued and applied to the more inferior levels of the software system (e.g. software design, code). On a project using Agile practices, such as XP‘s collective code ownership and emergent design, good communication is crucial to achieving conceptual integrity in code.

The book is mandatory reading  for any developer or software development manager. The phrase “there is no silver bullet”, for example, which has become something of a cliché in our industry, comes from an author’s paper “No Silver Bullet – essence and accident” and it was included as a chapter in the book.

Nevertheless, I do consider some parts of the book to be dated (the book was first published in 1975!). If you have little time, in a first reading consider reading chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 10, 11, 13, 16 (No silver bullet), 17, 18 (this chapter is a nice summary of the whole book) and 19 (this is a review of the original publication after 20 years). After reading this book, you may also consider reading the author’s new publication “The design of design” (I myself haven’t read it yet, but have seen good comments about it).

As a side note, I liked seeing the author use some bible-inspired thoughts to make some of his points in a technical book. A few areas of knowledge (e.g.: management, oceanography, etc.) have already benefited somehow from the wisdom found in the Scriptures. We still have a whole lot to learn in our craft and I really think the Word of God can be a source of inspiration no matter the subject matter. I finish this post with a quote by Brook’s himself:

“We need a God-given humility to recognize our fallibility and limitations”.