Books : reviews

Tom DeMarco, Timothy Lister.
Dorset House. 1987

rating : 3 : worth reading

A good read, that introduces us to The Furniture Police, the importance and difficulty of Flow, learning not to answer the phone, and that has a very early reference to Christopher Alexander's Timeless Way (which I did not follow up when I first read this in 1990, more's the pity).

Tom DeMarco.
The Deadline: a novel about project management.
Dorset House. 1997

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 30 July 2002

George Gamow wrote some scientific stories about Mr. Tompkins. Tom DeMarco has taken the character, updated him, and made him a project manager. Kidnapped out of a down-sizing seminar, and taken to the ex-Communist Bloc country of Morovia, he is put in charge of their new software production project, and has (almost) free rein to manage it as he likes.

After a slightly slow start, the "novel" is amusing and interesting. It discusses some concepts of Project Management, focussing on the people issues, and introduces and explains certain ideas in a very clear manner. It is also fun spotting who some of the characters are supposed to be. But I don't think it manages what it set out to do: to show the effect different project management styles and techniques. Parallel teams doing the same projects are set up with different team sizes, ostensibly to allow controlled experiments. But we never actually get to feel the effects of those different sizes; we only see the projects from outside. Also, the style of the projets is very far from being typical: they are all re-engineerings (that is, copying) of existing products, so they have clear and fixed set of requirements from the start, allowing a particular design approach to be taken.

So, a good read, some interesting ideas, but a slightly missed opportunity.

Tom DeMarco.
Broadway. 2001

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 12 May 2002

During the 90s, companies were busy slimming down, getting more efficient, cutting out the slack, becoming lean and mean. They are now so efficient that they haven't got time to do anything else, including change, should that be necessary. And it is necessary, in this fast changing world. Efficiency and agility are just not simultaneously possible. (And this is true not just in organisations, but in the artefacts we build. For example, as we use our roads more and more "efficiently", it takes smaller and smaller problems to cause massive jams.)

DeMarco shows how why it's essential to build some slack into the system. Enough time for people to stop and think, to plan for the future, not just scurry around frantically in the present. He rails against lots of things that hinder change: not only efficiency, but the climate of Fear and Blame, the intolerance of failure, and the lack of managerial teamwork, that make people risk averse. Oh, and that much of that vaunted efficiency is purely illusory, in any case.

This is a good swift read that nails many points firmly on the head. Next, as with so many of these sensible managerial books, is how to get the right people to read it?

Tom DeMarco, Timothy Lister.
Waltzing with Bears: managing risk on software projects.
Dorset House. 2003