The mythical open source miracle

Community development isn't a quick fix for poorly designed software

Joel Spolsky is one of our most celebrated pundits on the practice of software development, and he's full of terrific insight. In a recent blog post, he decries the fallacy of "Lego programming" -- the all-too-common assumption that sophisticated new tools will make writing applications as easy as snapping together children's toys. It simply isn't so, he says -- despite the fact that people have been claiming it for decades -- because the most important work in software development happens before a single line of code is written.

By way of support, Spolsky reminds us of a quote from the most celebrated pundit of an earlier generation of developers. In his 1987 essay "No Silver Bullet," Frederick P. Brooks wrote, "The essence of a software entity is a construct of interlocking concepts ... I believe the hard part of building software to be the specification, design, and testing of this conceptual construct, not the labor of representing it and testing the fidelity of the representation ...  If this is true, building software will always be hard. There is inherently no silver bullet."

As Spolsky points out, in the 20 years since Brooks wrote "No Silver Bullet," countless products have reached the market heralded as the silver bullet for effortless software development. Similarly, in the 30 years since Brooks published "The Mythical Man-Month" -- in which, among other things, he debunks the fallacy that if one programmer can do a job in ten months, ten programmers can do the same job in one month -- product managers have continued to buy into various methodologies and tricks that claim to make running software projects as easy as stacking Lego bricks.

Don't you believe it. If, as Brooks wrote, the hard part of software development is the initial design, then no amount of radical workflows or agile development methods will get a struggling project out the door, any more than the latest GUI rapid-development toolkit will.

And neither will open source. Too often, commercial software companies decide to turn over their orphaned software to "the community" -- if such a thing exists -- in the naïve belief that open source will be a miracle cure to get a flagging project back on track. This is just another fallacy, as history demonstrates.

In 1998, Netscape released the source code to its Mozilla browser to the public to much fanfare, but only lukewarm response from developers. As it turned out, the Mozilla source was much too complex and of too poor quality for developers outside Netscape to understand it. As Jamie Zawinski recounts, the resulting decision to rewrite the browser's rendering engine from scratch derailed the project anywhere from six to ten months.

This is a classic example of the fallacy of the mythical man-month. The problem with the Mozilla code was poor design, not lack of an able workforce. Throwing more bodies at the project didn't necessarily help; it may have even hindered it. And while implementing a community development process may have allowed Netscape to sidestep its own internal management problems, it was certainly no silver bullet for success.

The key to developing good software the first time around is doing the hard work at the beginning: good design, and rigorous testing of that design. Fail that, and you've got no choice but to take the hard road. As Brooks observed all those years ago, successful software will never be easy. No amount of open source process will change that, and to think otherwise is just more Lego-programming nonsense.

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