Know Your Scarcity

Fred Brooks, the computer scientist who 35 years ago wrote the still-relevant The Mythical Man-Month, has written a new book, The Design of Design, and Kevin Kelly interviews him in Wired. It’s interesting throughout, but the following struck me as particularly insightful:

The critical thing about the design process is to identify your scarcest resource. Despite what you may think, that very often is not money. For example, in a NASA moon shot, money is abundant but lightness is scarce; every ounce of weight requires tons of material below. On the design of a beach vacation home, the limitation may be your ocean-front footage. You have to make sure your whole team understands what scarce resource you’re optimizing.

I believe Brooks’s point about money often not being the scarcest resource is spot-on; as Stella Adler used to say, “your talent is in your choice.”

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  1. Kenneth says:

    It might be better to think of money as merely the proxy for whatever resource you’re missing, and even this starts to show that money, in of itself, is not the actual limiting factor. I can buy more fuel to send the man into space, but I can’t endlessly expand it to the point that I’m converting the land mass of Cape Canaveral into a fuel depot. I can buy more ocean-front property for my beach house, but I can’t buy all of California. And typical of the person who wrote the Mythic Man Month, just because I can throw more programmers at a project that’s late doesn’t mean I make the deadline.

    In theory I can do all those things with enough money. In reality, there are things money can’t buy, or there comes a break point where costs so far exceed returns that continuing would be insane. After all, if we had unlimited resources, there would be no need of economics; this is the study of how to work with *limited* resources.

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  2. Jim says:

    I’ve been a software developer for 25 years. I read MMM years ago. I should probably look over it again.

    In my experience, two of the scarest resources are:
    + Clear requirements
    + Time to do the coding

    A HUGE amount of time is spent in just trying to figure out what the customer wants and what it should do.

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  3. Eric M. Jones says:

    @16- vincent. “If money is not scarce, why do not just hire three teams instead of one and let them compete.”

    Why not just hire competent Chinese and Indian management teams for 1/3 the money?

    @17- Kenneth “In reality, there are things money can’t buy, or there comes a break point where costs so far exceed returns that continuing would be insane…”

    Oh? Ever see Boston’s Big Dig? Endless money spent. No sane solution in sight.

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  4. SDC says:

    You people saying ‘at the end of the day the constraint is always money’ – money is as we know an abstract thing, and you’re putting all the constraints into the money bucket, which I suppose isn’t TOTALLY wrong, but it doesn’t shed any light on how to attack a problem (once you’ve secured funding).

    It’s not true that ‘with enough money, you can do anything’ – Brooks is just saying your efforts with the moon shot are better spent cutting down weight than pumping infinite money into rocket fuel. Just find the area where your improvements will have the most benefit, and then handle other constraints when they become too…’pessimized’…

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  5. Eric M. Jones says:

    @20–SDC “money is as we know an abstract thing.”

    Reality is an abstraction too. Please send me some abstract money.

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  6. DouglasT says:

    In many organizations and on many projects, time is the limiting factor. Saying that you can just add more people is incorrect, see “The Mythical Man Month” for an explanation.

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  7. Chris Kuan says:

    @16 Jim;

    MMM 20th Anniversary Edition was released 15 years ago (!) – I’d read that rather than re-reading the original, as some of the lessonsof experience to which Brooks alludes in the interview are in that edition.

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  8. Juan Camilo Esguerra says:

    Ok. I will read the Mythical Man Month and I will tell you, but still think the real thing is money…

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