Lego Programming

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December 05, 2006

Lego Programming

Joel reviewed a book Beyond Java, and, in his review, he enthusiastically recommended an essay by Fred Brooks called "No Silver Bullet: Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering." He recently mentioned it again in his post Lego Programming. Brooks wrote the Mythical Man Month, which was really the first software engineering text. It was remarkable in identifying surprising asymmetries in software development. For example, Brooks identified the network costs in adding more developers to a project and dramatic disparities  in individual developer productivity (eg, "adding manpower to a late softer project makes it later"), but he also made a number of forgotten poor predictions in the same book, some of which he confesses to in "The Mythical Man Month After 20 Years"  such as "I am convinced that interactive systems will never displace batch systems for many applications."

I have written about Silver Bullets in the past and emphatically feel the widely regarded author to be irresponsible and premature in his assessment of there being no silvery bullets, which is leading many developers, not the least of which is Joel, to be unimaginative and pessimistic of advances in software development.

For example, Brooks asserts in the start of his essay this bit of false wisdom:

There is no single development, in either technology or in management technique, that by itself promises even one order-of-magnitude improvement in productivity, in reliability, in simplicity.

That assertion turns out to be pure nonsense, amply disproven by numerous advances in IDEs, languages, frameworks, componentization over the past few decades. Our expectations of software and our ability have risen. A year of work takes a month or a month of work takes a day. An order of magnitude improvement usually results in major qualitative changes, often resulting in an existing lengthy project becoming a short task item or a new project suddenly becoming feasible, such as when end users start writing applications (using scripting and RAD tools) that were once exclusively the domain of IT.

The net effect is that we often don't consciously recognize tenfold improvements in productivity. We forget how hard it was to program decades ago. Consider developing a game for the simple Atari 2600 gaming system back in the early 1980s.

I see the driving force towards tenfold productivity as the move to more declarative and compositional approaches, be it through functional, object-oriented, and component-based programming. Kinda like Lego.


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