Fred Brooks : How to Design Anything in Wired Interview

Photo: Master Planner: Fred Brooks Shows How to Design Anything

Its reference time again, Kelly Brooks, who’ve made the most insightful and useful and often ignored advice for anybody who’ve struggled with design and process. Great to hear about his new book, The Design of Design, and this wired magazine interview.

 

The most important single decision I ever made was to change the IBM 360 series from a 6-bit byte to an 8-bit byte, thereby enabling the use of lowercase letters. That change propagated everywhere.

 

Great design does not come from great processes; it comes from great designers

 

Start with a vision rather than a set of features.

 

You can learn more from failure than success. In failure you’re forced to find out what part did not work. But in success you can believe everything you did was great, when in fact some parts may not have worked at all. Failure forces you to face reality

and the most famous: 

You can’t accelerate a nine-month pregnancy by hiring nine pregnant women for a month. Likewise, you can’t always speed up an overdue software project by adding more programmers; beyond a certain point, doing so increases delays.

Brooks codified that precept 35 years ago in a small technical book, The Mythical Man-Month, which he named after the flawed assumption that more manpower meant predictably faster progress. Today, his insight is known as Brooks’ law. The book still sells 10,000 copies a year, and Brooks—who oversaw the creation of IBM’s System/360, the company’s most successful mainframe—is hailed as a legend. Wired’s founding executive editor, Kevin Kelly, spoke with Brooks to discuss the upside of failure, lowercase letters, and what we can learn from Apple.

Excerpts Follow: 

Wired: What provoked you to write The Mythical Man-Month?

Brooks: As I was leaving IBM, Thomas Watson Jr. asked me, “You’ve run the hardware part of the IBM 360, and you’ve run the software part; what’s the difference between running the two?” I told him that was too hard a question for an instant answer but that I would think about it. My answer was The Mythical Man-Month.

 

Wired: Did you ever expect it to be read by nonprogrammers?

Brooks: No, and I’ve been surprised that people still find it relevant 35 years later. That means we still have the same problems.


Wired: What do you consider your greatest technological achievement?

Brooks: The most important single decision I ever made was to change the IBM 360 series from a 6-bit byte to an 8-bit byte, thereby enabling the use of lowercase letters. That change propagated everywhere.


Wired: In your experience, what’s the best process for design?

Brooks: Great design does not come from great processes; it comes from great designers.

 

Wired: You’re a Mac user. What have you learned from the design of Apple products?

Brooks: Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera, once said that his method of design was to start with a vision of what you want and then, one by one, remove the technical obstacles until you have it. I think that’s what Steve Jobs does. He starts with a vision rather than a list of features.

 

Wired: In the past few decades, we’ve seen remarkable performance improvements in most technologies—but not in software. Why is software the exception?

Brooks: Software is not the exception; hardware is the exception. No technology in history has had the kind of rapid cost/performance gains that computer hardware has enjoyed. Progress in software is more like progress in automobiles or airplanes: We see steady gains, but they’re incremental.


Wired: Do you have any advice for young industrial designers and software architects?

Brooks: Design, design, and design; and seek knowledgeable criticism.

 

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