Review of The Mythical Man-Month by Fred Brooks

Mythical Man Month book coverThe Mythical Man-Month was recommended in a master’s class on project control systems. You don’t need to be a graduate student to understand this text, though, nor do you need to be a programmer. Originally written in 1975, Mr. Brooks draws from his experience guiding the development of an operating system, as well as a tremendous amount of research conducted by a number of individuals, to talk about a variety of challenges in management. In the 20th anniversary edition, four additional chapters are included where Mr. Brooks reviews what he wrote and talks about whether he feels it still applies or not. In almost every case, he stands by what he wrote, and I do too.

This isn’t exclusively a book about software development or programming, it’s a book about time and people management. Many of the principles apply to any job where multiple people need to work together, but for those of you in IT, this book is especially practical. Fred Brooks quickly shows, using both experience and cited evidence, that adding people to a belabored project often makes it later rather than helping it get back on time. He writes about the best way to guide projects, to organize teams, and what sort of pitfalls you can avoid with careful planning. He also counters the vain hope that some breakthrough will help us increase our productivity tremendously, while at the same time demonstrating how much more effective good staff are compared to mediocre or bad staff.

A lot of the practical recommendations are somewhat dated, but the general principles apply. These days, we’ll use a wiki or a Google document instead of a printed and shared text, and we have instant messenger and email and Google Hangouts and Skype to facilitate communication. But you’ll have no trouble translating his general principles into modern applications.

In the end, Fred Brooks in The Mythical Man-Month is writing about people and teams. Whether you are a member or a leader, this book will benefit you, but I think it’s especially helpful for managers. There are some approaches that we might view as common sense, but which Mr. Brooks helps demonstrate simply don’t work in practice.

Why should I read this book?

Fred Brooks’s The Mythical Man-Month has timeless insights into working with, organizing, and managing teams. I think this should be a must-read for anyone managing IT staff, but even if you’re not in IT, it has a lot of applicability.

Who should read this book?

I absolutely recommend this book to anyone working in or with a team where you have deadlines you need to meet.

Who shouldn’t read this book?

If you are a freelancer who works alone, this book may have little or no application for you, and isn’t likely worth your time.

How should I read this book?

The book is organized as a collection of essays, so it’s easy to pick up, read a bit, and put down so you can tackle a different task. You don’t need to read this straight-through to get the benefit of it. Mr. Brooks also has a great second-to-last chapter that pulls together a summary of everything he has written in easy-to-reference bullet points.

In addition, because Mr. Brooks lived and worked in software engineering for so long, The Mythical Man-Month can be a bit heavy on jargon. There may be passages you struggle with, but that’s OK–because of the essay structure of this book, you can easily skip past those and still learn the important concepts that will benefit you most.

Where can I get this book?

Amazon.com has it in hardback, paperback, and for the Kindle. I recommend you get a printed version because the tables will be easier to read, but your mileage may vary.

 

One thought on “Review of The Mythical Man-Month by Fred Brooks

  1. I read this long ago back at Microsoft. It was practically required reading for all PM’s and PdM’s. Great book and even with the changes in processes that have come into play in software dev over the years since the book was written I think it’s a good choice to read.

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