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The Mythical Man-Month

Frederick P. Brooks, Jr.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Few books on software project management have been as influential and timeless as The Mythical Man-Month. With a blend of software engineering facts and thought-provoking opinions, Fred Brooks offers insight for anyone managing complex projects. [outside back cover, Twentieth Anniversary Edition, with four new chapters; Addison-Wesley, 1995]

Chapter 2: The Mythical Man-Month

Good cooking takes time. If you are made to wait, it is to serve you better, and to please you. Menu of Restaurant Antoine, New Orleans [page 13]

More software projects have gone awry for lack of calendar time than for all other causes combined. Why is this cause of disaster so common?

First, our techniques of estimating are poorly developed. More seriously, they reflect an unvoiced assumption which is quite untrue, i.e., that all will go well.

Second, our estimating techniques fallaciously confuse effort with progress, hiding the assumption that men and months are interchangeable.

Third, because we are uncertain of our estimates, software managers often lack the courteous stubbornness of Antoine's chef.

Fourth, schedule progress is poorly monitored. Techniques proven and routine in other engineering disciplines are considered radical innovations in software engineering.

Fifth, when schedule slippage is recognized, the natural (and traditional) response is to add manpower. Like dousing a fire with gasoline, this makes matters worse, much worse. More fire requires more gasoline, and thus begins a regenerative cycle which ends in disaster. [page 14]


In many creative activities the medium of execution is intractable. Lumber splits; paints smear; electrical circuits ring. These physical limitations of the medium constrain the ideas that may be expressed, and they also create unexpected difficulties in the implementation. [page 15]

Computer programming, however, creates with an exceedingly tractable medium. The programmer builds from pure thought-stuff: concepts and very flexible representations thereof. Because the medium is tractable, we expect few difficulties in implementation; hence our pervasive optimism. Because our ideas are faulty, we have bugs; hence our optimism is unjustified. [page 15]

The Man-Month

The second fallacious thought mode is expressed in the very unit of effort used in estimating and scheduling: the man-month. Cost does indeed vary as the product of the number of men and the number of months. Progress does not. Hence the man-month as a unit for measuring the size of a job is a dangerous and deceptive myth. It implies that men and months are interchangeable.

When a task cannot be partitioned because of sequential constraints, the application of more effort has no effect on the schedule. The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned. Many software tasks have this characteristic because of the sequential nature of debugging. [page 17; emphasis in original]

Systems Test

In examining conventionally scheduled projects, I have found that few allowed one-half of the projected schedule for testing, but that most did indeed spend half of the actual schedule for that purpose. Many of these were on schedule until and except in system testing. [page 20]

Gutless Estimating

Observe that for the programmer, as for the chef, the urgency of the patron may govern the scheduled completion of the task, but it cannot govern the actual completion. An omelette, promised in two minutes, may appear to be progressing nicely. But when it has not set in two minutes, the customer has two choices--wait or eat it raw. Software customers have had the same choices.

The cook has another choice; he can turn up the heat. The result is often an omelette nothing can save--burned in one part, raw in another. [page 21]

Regenerative Schedule Disaster

Oversimplifying outrageously, we state Brooks's Law:

Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.

This then is the demythologizing of the man-month. The number of months of a project depends upon its sequential constraints. The maximum number of men depends upon the number of independent subtasks. From these two quantities one can derive schedules using fewer men and more months. (The only risk is product obsolescence.) One cannot, however, get workable schedules using more men and fewer months. More software projects have gone awry for lack of calendar time than for all other causes combined. [pages 25-26; emphasis in original]

Chapter 11: Plan to Throw One Away

Two Steps Forward and One Step Back

The fundamental problem with program maintenance is that fixing a defect has a substantial (20-50 percent) chance of introducing another. So the whole process is two steps forward and one step back.

Why aren't defects fixed more cleanly? First, even a subtle defect shows itself as a local failure of some kind. In fact it often has system-wide ramifications, usually nonobvious. Any attempt to fix it with minimum effort will repair the local and obvious, but unless the structure is pure or the documentation very fine, the far-reaching effects of the repair will be overlooked. Second, the repairer is usually not the man who wrote the code, and often he is a junior programmer or trainee. [page 122]

Chapter 14: Hatching a Catastrophe

How does a project get to be a year late?... One day at a time. [page 153]

But the day-by-day slippage is harder to recognize, harder to prevent, harder to make up. Yesterday a key man was sick, and a meeting couldn't be held. Today the machines are all down, because lightning struck the building's power transformer. Tomorrow the disk routines won't start testing, because the first disk is a week late from the factory. Snow, jury duty, family problems, emergency meetings with customer, executive audits--the list goes on and on. Each one only postpones some activity by a half-day or a day. And the schedule slips, one day at a time. [page 154]

Milestones or Millstones?

For picking the milestones there is only one relevant rule. Milestones must be concrete, specific, measurable events, defined with knife-edge sharpness. Coding, for a counterexample, is "90 percent finished" for half of the total coding time. Debugging is "99 percent complete" most of the time. "Planning complete" is an event one can proclaim almost at will. [page 154]

© 1995 Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

I have extracted an aggregate of less than three pages from this superb book of 292 substantive pages; of its 19 chapters, only three are represented here. I encourage you to get the book and to read it: not only is it a classic in the field, it is a masterpiece of writing, concise and vivid. The range of experience and ideas that the author draws upon is astounding: how many books on computer science, for instance, quote from Pope Pius XI (pages 277-278)? The Mythical Man-Month should be available for purchase on-line through or or And see Ed Yourdon's Notes on Fred Brooks's Mythical Man-Month.
See also Brooks' Law: Why Software Projects Are Late at the Gary North site.
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