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Geek Rockstar Fred Brooks on Design
Categories: Technology

Fred Brooks, computer industry rockstar, regaled 200 geek disciples at Etsy last night with stories about why team design doesn’t work. Brooks wrote a classic book called The Mythical Man-Month about how putting more engineers on a project slows it down paradoxically. In his new book, The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist, he talks about conceptual integrity. Here are highlights:

  • There are problems inherent in team design and telecollaboration, a widening gap between builders and designers, says Brooks.
  • If you work alone, there may be a lack of competence, but there won’t be a lack of communication. When you have even a team of 2, you need a documented concept of what users want. In a team of 4, you need to assign a Boss and a Technical Director (just like a movie has a Producer and a Director).
  • Brooks: “‘Many hands make light work’ sometimes, but ‘Many hands make more work’ always.”
  • Before the turn of the last century, great design was done alone (see Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo). Gilbert & Sullivan were a team, but one worked on lyrics and other on music, and they corresponded by courier. (The only exception was the Wright Brothers.) Now design has gotten more sophisticated (there’s computational fluid dynamics for shampoo) and a rush to get to market first.
  • In order to get conceptual integrity, there should be only one chief programmer (with a backup) and others are in support roles that make these people as productive as possible. One person needs to understand the whole thing, otherwise how is a user going to?
  • The system architect should be an agent, approver, and advocate for the user – find one who really cares.
  • All assumptions must be documented: the user population characteristics and the application, including how it will be used and developed in the future. Brooks feels it’s better to be wrong about assumptions than be silent and vague, because it forces discussion. Then you can do a sensitivity analysis and go fact finding if something’s important.
  • Innovation comes when products are designed outside of the normal process (look at the iPhone, Macintosh, Linux)
  • Collaboration works well for things like review, where “many minds find many bugs.” This was in Eric Raymond’s book The Cathedral and the Bazaar about the development of Linux.
  • You need a stylesheet for the design process so all micro-decisions are done the same way.

I want to know what lessons you’ve learned about the design process.

– Kathy Sandler

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