Arrogance carries a high price in year 2000 stakes

As post-industrial theatre of the absurd, the digital angst about Y2Kollapses and millennia meltdowns is fascinating. Two thumbs up! Will our systems collapse in ways that simultaneously surprise and destroy? Or, to borrow from that terrific software artist Bill Shakespeare, is this just all sound and fury that signifies nothing?

Haven't a clue. But let me share a year 2000 observation that leaves me speechless, smirking and shaking my head. One of my all-time favourite books is The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks, an innovative University of North Carolina computer science professor who oversaw the development of the IBM 360 operating system.

The book is a classic -- beautifully written, insightful, inciteful and brimming with the useful wisdom of practical experience. The Mythical Man Month is the sort of book that every manager should reread every couple of years. I do.

Perhaps the single most provocative management principle Brooks conveys in the book is that when you add people to a software project that's running late, you invariably make it even later. Let me paraphrase: you can't accelerate a difficult software development process by adding more people.

Brooks' arguments and evidence are compelling. Moreover, in the 20-plus years since the book's publication, the wisdom of Brooks' principle has been empirically confirmed time and time again.

So I'm chatting with a friend, Peter Keen, about the professional perversities of organisational behaviour. Between us, every single company we know is adding people to its crash year 2000 efforts.

Every one. I make a few calls and send out a dozen e-mails. Jackpot! Every single company contacted is either in the process of, or plans to add a significant number of people to their millennium-bug-extermination processes.

If Fred Brooks were dead, he'd no doubt be spinning in his grave. I talk regularly with a couple of year 2000 managers in large companies.

They know who Fred Brooks is; they've read The Mythical Man Month and they darn well know the book's key finding. But, hey! -- they're just too busy trying to marshal as many resources as they can to satisfy themselves and their bosses that they're taking every step possible to solve the problem.

It's oddly reminiscent of overworked folk who complain that they're just too busy to take the time to hire an assistant.

Given past experience, we should be able to state with almost unerring accuracy that every single organisation that is adding people to "help out with" its millennium challenge will be worse off than it would be otherwise. Organisations that were guilty of underestimating their year 2000 rewrites a few years back are now guilty of mismanagement yet again.

I confidently predict a spate of stories in ComputerWorld by year's end -- and in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and on CNN next year -- that all those programmers thrown at the millennium bug in 1997 and 1998 only made the problem worse. Professor Brooks will be quoted sounding rueful and disappointed. CIOs and year 2000 czars will find their heads swiftly removed from their shoulders.

Sad? Absolutely. Predictable? Well, it's as predictable as the year 2000 challenge itself. The problem, alas, isn't ignorance; it's arrogance. People know what the problem will be; they simply don't believe it will happen to them.

They're wrong and, whether the problem is real or not, they'll pay a price for that arrogance.

* Michael Schrage is a research associate at the MIT Media Lab and author of No More Teams! His Internet address is schrage@media.mit.edu.

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