RIP Fred 'Mythical Man-Month' Brooks: IBM guru of software project management

Turing Award winner who helped spread the eight-bit byte

Obit Dr Frederick Phillips Brooks Jr, leader of IBM's OS/360 project and the man chiefly responsible for the prevalence of the eight-bit byte, has died at the age of 91.

Fred Brooks was the project lead for OS/360, IBM's flagship OS for its vastly influential S/360 line of computers. His experience on this project led him to write probably the most famous book about project management, The Mythical Man-Month. From that book came several famous dictums about computing. Some notable examples include:

"Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later."

"The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned."

"All programmers are optimists."

There are quite a few pages of Fred Brooks quotations, with good reason – you will probably recognize several of them. For instance, he originated (PDF) the use of the word "architecture" to describe computer design, as well as coining the phrase "second-system effect".

In 1999, he won the Turing award for "landmark contributions to computer architecture, operating systems, and software engineering."

In 2010, WIRED magazine asked him what he felt was his greatest technological achievement. His response was:

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.

As the Reg has noted before, though, the software industry as a whole has failed to learn what Brooks found and taught.

IBM hired Brooks to direct the OS/360 project because it was running late, although his previous project, the IBM 8000, had failed. Brooks attempted to resign, but this was rebuffed by IBM CEO Thomas J Watson Jr, who said:

I just spent a billion dollars educating you; I'm not letting you go now!

Under Brooks' direction, OS/360 did finally ship. It changed the direction of the computer industry, introducing the idea of software compatibility across different hardware models. The S/360 range were also the machines on and for which the hypervisor was invented.

Brooks then quit IBM to found the Faculty of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina. After writing The Mythical Man-Month (PDF), he went on to write and co-author multiple other books including The Design of Design and papers including No Silver Bullet — Essence and Accident in Software Engineering (PDF).

He has been called "a giant of computer science", a sentiment echoed by one of his students, Professor Steven Bellovin, the co-inventor of USENET and encrypted password exchange.

As his family's obituary to him notes, he was a committed evangelical Christian. He suffered a stroke in 2020, after which his health declined. He leaves his wife of 66 years Nancy, three children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. ®

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