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Fred Brooks retires (dailytarheel.com)
286 points by cperciva on Mar 10, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 72 comments

I worked part-time in desktop support at Sitterson Hall, home of the UNC Computer Science program, when I was an undergrad in the late 90s / early 2000s. My team supported Windows, hardware, printers, etc. I distinctly remember closing help tickets for Prof Brooks (and Matt Cutts while he was a PhD student).

My fellow undergrad tech support doofuses and I knew that Prof Brooks was a god and thus walked on eggshells when we were around him...which we quickly learned was totally unnecessary. He was incredibly friendly, gracious, and encouraging. A true Tar Heel.

Congrats to Prof Brooks.

Hi Eric :-)

As a UNC Computer Science graduate, I also had the opportunity to interact with Dr. Brooks on numerous occasions. He was truly a delight to be around and a casual observer would never guess that he was in fact an intellectual giant.

Had no idea till now, three days late. How surreal is the modern web that I find out about this via SV-funded HN, rather than organically in the town that I am currently in, coming from a meeting on the campus of which I just met to discuss plans for future of health computing, from my own campus student newspaper where I worked and where I first heard of and met Fred Brooks.

Professor Brooks is really a pillar of the computer science field, and as you point out, a true Tar Heel. He contributed so much to the students, faculty, and staff at UNC.

I have nothing to say but good things about the guy. He lent me his copy of the Mythical Man Month when I was in high school. (I went to the same church as he did)

Can't help, but ask this: did Prof Brooks ever comment on progress/deadlines for the tickets he opened?

Or request more manpower...

I think reading this book[1] is even more important than learning to use a keyboard (and mouse) with the intention of creating software or any complex system.

Knowing your limits is one thing, but understanding why/how they are being manipulated by outside forces (e.g. overestimating ability) is another. And how to counter those forces is also included in these pages.

Thank's for the sanity and well-managed project advice Fred!

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Mythical-Man-Month-Software-Engineerin...

Most people associate "The Mythical Man-Month" with Brooks’s law: adding people to a late project makes it later. For me, the best part of it is one page at the end of chapter one, entitled The Joys of the Craft.

It is excellent on what makes programming so great: http://henrikwarne.com/2012/06/02/why-i-love-coding/

I always enjoyed the part that basically said that management exists to decrease the number of lines of communication necessary for a project to function...and that's pretty much the only reason they exist ;)

The sad part is how many managers aren't aware of this.

The good ones are. The ones that want a project to succeed will learn.

Or, more likely, they simply don't care.

In a way yes, but they do care about time to completion, even a lazy, cheat-first manager would love to have that. Then, all things considered it seems easier to implement a 'put more resources, fake some numbers, notify client of delays (just like every other projects so they won't rant that much)'

    “Here’s Fred Brooks, this giant. I mean — made IBM, adviser 
    to presidents, all this stuff. And this lady is looking for 
    directions, so he walks with her out to the street and down 
    the street to show her where she needs to go,” Bishop said.
Isn't it sad that this was deemed even worth reporting? Why assume someone like Fred Brooks wouldn't do that?

Dr. Bishop is my advisor and has been very close to Dr. Brooks since coming to the department. It's hard to verbalize the humility Dr. Brooks exhibits. He once held the door open for me a few years ago as I was leaving the building after a long day. Here is this brilliant, monumental computer scientist and founder of the department, holding the door for a lowly, clearly exhausted undergraduate. It almost seemed metaphoric. As a grad student now, I look back and really appreciate that small gesture.

These things may seem trivial, but he does them so often. Many of the students at UNC wouldn't even know what Dr. Brooks looks like, let alone his day-to-day personality. Dr. B was trying to describe the kindness and good nature of Dr. Brooks.

"I put my pants on like the rest of you: one leg at a time. Only when my pants are on, I manage/write hugely influential IT works".

In modern Silicon Valley, we can do that without pants.

Agreed. I guess there's a lazy stereotype that once people reach a certain 'status' they don't trouble themselves with 'the little people' anymore, but Fred Brooks is hardly a megalomaniacal diva (I have no idea what his personal wealth is, though). As much as I absolutely detest the likes of Donald Trump, I wouldn't be surprised if even he acted in a similar way in that situation.

> As much as I absolutely detest the likes of Donald Trump, I wouldn't be surprised if even he acted in a similar way in that situation.

Then I invite you to read http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/12/donald-trump-mark-bow...

Note that the Daily Tarheel is the student newspaper at UNC (shout-out to my fellow heels!) so maybe give them a little latitude.

It's awkward and stands out, true, but it was a quote, and the author might not have had many more to work with on deadline.

The point is that he is a humble man. Not something you see every day for someone that well known and respected.

> Not something you see every day for someone that well known and respected.

And that is why it is sad, that what is expected of people is to become successful assholes.

"and respected" Seems perverse to conflate uppityness with being respected. I'd say it's quite the inverse.

Good point... I bungled my point :).

I think there is a "celebrity" version where external folks have a great deal of respect for the narrative/persona that they see publicly. A lot of times the "real story" is that the guy is a walking shitshow from the perspective of the folks around him.

Then you have the rare folks who are respected in the wider world and by their peers.

I believe the assumption is that any average person would not do that. Reporting that Fred Brooks did that sets him apart from the average person.

Sounds like a wrong assumption both for Fred Brooks, the average person, and people of similar status to Fred.

You're at work and someone asks you for directions. Do you:

A) Tell them to go down the hall, take elevator, go down, and then they'll find their way.

or B) Say "here, come with me." Excuse yourself for a few minutes from whatever business you were attending to. Walk with person to elevator. Strike up a conversation along the way. Once on ground floor, walk with them a little ways more to make sure they see exactly which street to follow. Then return upstairs to whatever you were doing.

That was point of anecdote.

Depending on how pressed I am for time, I can (and have) do either.

And not only I'm not unique in that regard, but I can also be totally un-humble/un-helpful (if that's what the anecdote meant to imply) at other times, despite having shown someone around some offices.

I think its inclusion is more an artifact of the style of reporting. On one hand, owing to the breathless celebrity gossip column template and on the other the pseudo-secularism of public institutions in the American South. For UNC's donating alumni, the religious angle is more likely to elicit funds than professional achievement. The humility parable is a supporting detail. Brooks' contribution to the field beyond Chapel Hill ain't and is left out [i.e. why Brooks won the Turing Award].

That's not to dismiss or disparage Brooks' religious beliefs. Only to point out that they are culturally more relevant to the university's stereotypical alum. Few would assume that a university professor would be above giving directions, absent minded schemas aside.

If you are coming away with something about "pseudo-secularism of public institutions in the American South" from a guy sharing an anecdote about his colleague, I think it has more to do with the lens through which you read the article than the guy, the article or the institution.

Show, don't tell. One tells a story. The other is this:

    “Here’s Fred Brooks, this giant. I mean — made IBM, adviser 
    to presidents, all this stuff. And humble,” Bishop said.

Shows how unassuming, humble, and willing he is to help others.

It doesn't matter what your status (for lack of a better word) is. You're either a person who would help someone or you're a person who wouldn't.

Fame changes a person. Some people, for the worse.

Sure, kind behavior should be expected but it's okay to point it out and commend it too.

There's plenty of unkind behavior going on and being pointed out.

Well, we also hear a lot of stories about giants in our field being raging assholes, illegally parking in handicap spots, skipping out on their parental obligations, stealing others' work ... maybe it should be taken for granted that you should be a good person, even if you're famous, but the occasional reminder doesn't hurt.

I hope you're not implying that Jobs was an intellectual giant.

Yeah, I find that an odd titbit. The implication is that the accepted normal reaction for "a giant", when asked for directions by someone is something along the lines of "WHAT DO I LOOK LIKE, A FUCKING TOURIST INFORMATION CENTRE? GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE, I'M A GODDAMN GIANT YOU STUPID WHORE".

No, it was fact that he didn't just PROVIDE directions, as most people would, but actually took a few minutes out of his day to guide this person, which most people wouldn't bother with, let alone the presumably super-busy founder of the department.

Please don't do this here.

Because a lot of professors aren't particularly great humans.

citation needed?

Because public demonstration of your virtuousness is the new lead currency. If you write about an 'old, white man', you have to apologize and you can compensate that by demonstrating that he is among the righteous nevertheless.

If UNC had hired 612 people instead of him, we would have had the job done in a month!

The MMM was first published in 1975. I began working in the industry in 1978 and first read his book around then. Thirty-eight years later, we still try to fix late programs by adding people. Brooks wrote the seminal, magnificent book on project management but he's still a voice, crying in the wilderness.

>Thirty-eight years later, we still try to fix late programs by adding people.

How true.

>Brooks wrote the seminal, magnificent book on project management but he's still a voice, crying in the wilderness.

But he's not the only voice any more. I'm sure there are some others, but one I know of is Rich Hickey. Okay, not for the exact same topic as Brooks, but a closely related one, IMO. Coincidentally, I had blogged about a video of him talking at a Clojure meet just yesterday (after watching it for the second time in some months, because I found it good). The topic is not Clojure, it's what he calls (jokingly) Hammock-Driven Development; IOW, thinking about, and analyzing enough, and deeply enough, your work [1], up front, because that is the better way and actually saves costs over the project lifetime (proven by studies, such as Capers Jones [2] et al). Here's the blog post, with a link to the video:


or you can watch the video directly here:

[1] And what he recommends is not the waterfall model or UML, BTW. In fact, he explicitly mentions and does not recommend them. But goes on to say, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. See the video to get the rest.




Edit: I like this Capers Jones quote:

"High-quality software is not expensive. High-quality software is faster and cheaper to build and maintain than low-quality software, from initial development all the way through total cost of ownership."[4]

He was in attendance at the Turing 100 conference a few years back - http://curation.cs.manchester.ac.uk/Turing100/www.turing100.... - which I was fortunate enough to attend.

It was full of great names. Roger Penrose, Donald Knuth, Gary Kasparov, Vint Cerf, Tony Hoare, etc.

Brooks was one of the speakers who seemed really interested in talking to delegates in coffee breaks and sharing stories. A lovely man, and his retirement is well deserved. He has shaped the industry more than any other attendee, even if others may have contributed more to the science, so to speak.

One of the things I've missed while I was an undergrad at Manchester and really regret it :(

Just last Spring, he lent me his copy of "What Color is Your Parachute" and invited me into his office to discuss two job offers I was contemplating. He did all this after he passed by the CS library and saw me looking for something.

Macbook Air - check. Tie and cardigan - check. Is Fred Brooks one of the original hipsters? ;-)

The term "hipster" originated in 1930s, so I doubt it

Fred Brooks was born in 1931. Seems like they originated at the same time

Brooks' famous essay "No Silver Bullet" is worth a (re-)read [0]. I still think AI and Automatic Programming will eventually change the face of software development in a bigger way than Brooks thinks possible; but I can't tell you when it will happen.

[0] http://worrydream.com/refs/Brooks-NoSilverBullet.pdf

Agreed; after just now reviewing the Wikipedia article for The Mythical Man-Month [1], I was going to mention the No Silver Bullets point, which, IIRC, he added in the 25th anniversary edition of the MMM book.


> Although Brooks officially retired in 2015, Jeffay said he is still active in the department. “He says ‘I didn’t retire. I just went off the payroll,’” Jeffay said.

I like that.

I have, sitting at my elbow right now, a copy of Mythical Man-Month, as part of a mini-bookshelf of the ten books I found most influential in my career / wish to share with my co-workers.

[For the curious: http://i.imgur.com/CGv9PGc.jpg ]

Likewise, I have The Design of Design in a stack of "Read Soon" books right by my bed. And I think The Mythical Man Month may be overdue for a re-read as well.


I can recommend all of those except Hoyte. I know lots of people like that one, but it always rubbed me the wrong way.

I had an opportunity to spend a day with him and his VR research team a few years back. Very exciting. Insightful. I loved his contributions to Software Engineering, but few know how much he impacted Virtual Reality as well!

The Mythical Man Month [0] hit me at a perfect time - I was working at a company that was obsessed with tracking everything in man-months without considering who was doing the work, or when they were added. The book gave me the academic support to back my intuition when I would push back on management.

Now on the other side, I take his advice in There is No Silver Bullet [1] very seriously. Improving software engineering is a slog, not a shiny buzzword.

My favorite quote [2] of his "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."

I guess the one surprising thing for me was that he was still actively working. Even 15 years ago I thought of him as a grand dean from a past generation. Great to see him stay so vibrant for so long.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mythical_Man-Month

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Silver_Bullet

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Brooks

I saw him speak on "A Personal History of Computers" last year and wrote about it here: http://chrissvec.com/fred-brooks-talk-a-personal-history-of-...

Brooks's overview: "I fell in love with computers at age 13, in 1944 when Aiken (architect) and IBM (engineers) unveiled the Harvard Mark I, the first American automatic computer. A half-generation behind the pioneers, I have known many of them. So this abbreviated history is personal in two senses: it is primarily about the people rather than the technology, and it disproportionally emphasizes the parts I know personally."

It was a great talk covering his whole career. A video of the same talk is here: http://www.heidelberg-laureate-forum.org/blog/video/lecture-...

Had Fred for Advance Computer Architecture back in 89 when he was writing his book. Great class and fantastic prof, loved the anecdotes and details on why certain decisions were made for various iconic computer systems. Oddly enough my mother had him as an advisor when she was in grad school working on masters #2.

Wow, this man is a true hero. What a humble, outstanding man that created this from the ground up! Thank you Fred for everything that you have done. It's great to see that fame does not change everyone.

It's sad that his message never really filtered through. I've worked at more places that thought you could speed up project development by throwing developers at it than otherwise.

Way back when the CS department was still in Old West, I remember seeing Dr. Brooks at different lectures and talks, always taking notes. I try to emulate his example but I'm nowhere as consistent as he was. At least in my old age I'm still trying to learn things, just as he is.

I will let you in on a secret. Brook's best work isn't the Mythical Man Month, its a 2010 book called The Design of Design.

Best title I've seen on HN yet ;-)

Apparently I was too creative for the moderators. :-(

Agreed :(. For anyone confused by the comment, the original title of the submission was:

"Fred Brooks retires after 612 (mythical) man-months"

I just noticed that. I have no idea who Fred Brooks is, but I had heard of The Mythical Man Month. The change is less informative, in my opinion.

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