Ruminations, October 27, 2013
How not to build software
In the late 1950s, Fred Brooks had the best technology job in the world. With a Ph.D. from Harvard, Brooks had been hired by IBM – at the time, it was considered to be the best technologic company in the world. The best and brightest coveted a job with Big Blue.
Brooks was assigned the task of heading the team to develop the most advanced operating system for the most advanced family of IBM computers – the 360. With a brilliant staff, how could he not succeed? Brooks did indeed deliver the new operating system – late, over budget and full of “bugs.”
Brooks, however, did not seek to blame others; he began a systematic effort to learn why the software development process, with the brightest minds, with high motivation and with seemingly limitless resources, could fail. The result was a slim, eminently readable book entitled The Mythical Man Month.
The book should be required reading for anyone involved with a large project of any kind. Some things, Brooks noted, take time no matter how many people are assigned to the task. No matter how many women you assign, it still takes nine months to deliver a baby.
Brooks also concluded that while some people estimate the time to complete a task with reasonable accuracy, projects can still fall behind because people do not work at their assigned tasks for 40 hours a week: they read and write memos, attend meetings, read technical magazines, read company missives – in short, people spend only about half their time performing assigned tasks.
When Health and Human Services (HHS) tells us that more people have been added to staff in order to fix the Affordable Care Act’s website, remember Brooks’ Law: Adding people to a late project will make the project later.
When President Obama compares the roll out of the Affordable Care website to Apple’s roll out of the iPods, he quite frankly doesn’t know what he is talking about. New technology is generally rolled out to employees (after extensive testing) to see if they can break it. After the employees have had at it, the product generally undergoes a beta test, where a limited number of real users get to use the system while the developers stand by.
The Affordable Care Act’s rollout was nothing like this and the blame clearly lies with management: HHS and the Administration. What are the odds that anyone in management has read The Mythical Man Month?
Fred Brooks came away from his project wiser. He wrote his book so we could all benefit from his wisdom. Would that the government could learn from the implementation of the Affordable Care Act – but don’t count on it.
(Note: two of the three quotes below are fictious. Can you guess which quote is the real one?)
Edward Smith, captain of the Titanic: "I am the first to acknowledge that the Titanic that was supposed sail the North Atlantic in a seamless way has had way more glitches than I think are acceptable."
German Chancellor Adolf Hitler: “I am the first to acknowledge that the Stalingrad offensive that was supposed to conquer the Soviet Union in a seamless way has had way more glitches than I think are acceptable."
President Barack Obama: "I am the first to acknowledge that the [Affordable Care] website that was supposed to do this all in a seamless way has had way more glitches than I think are acceptable."
The fair and balanced horse race
The day after the New York Times announced that the budget standoff had been a Democratic victory and “By nearly all accounts, Mr. Obama emerged the winner of the showdown…” Times executive editor Jill Abramson said on CBS “It’s been constantly, day after day, broadly in the media: who won, who lost, and you know nobody won and unfortunately we know who lost."
(Incidentally, Fox News reported that over the period of the government shutdown, there were 41 media stories that solely blamed Republicans, 17 stories that blamed both parties and none that solely blamed the Democrats.)
Quote without comment
Columnist Rich Lowry, writing in a Politico column on October 23: “[HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s] explanation for why the Obamacare website doesn’t work is that she couldn’t possibly have been expected to make it work in the mere 3½ years since the law passed. She told The Wall Street Journal the website ideally needed five years of construction and one year of testing and instead had only two years of construction and almost no testing."