Issue: March/April 2000 | PDF

Cargo Cult Software Engineering

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head for headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.
— Richard Feynman

I find it useful to draw a contrast between two different organizational development styles: “process-oriented” and “commitment-oriented” development. Process-oriented development achieves its effectiveness through skillful planning, use of carefully defined processes, efficient use of available time, and skillfull application of software engineering best practices. This style of development succeeds because the organization that uses it is constantly improving. Even if its early attempts are ineffective, steady attention to process means each successive attempt will work better than the previous attempt.

Commitment-oriented development goes by several names including “hero-oriented development” and “individual empowerment.” Commitment-oriented organizations are characterized by hiring the best possible people, asking them for total commitment to their projects, empowering them with nearly complete autonomy, motivating them to an extreme degree, and then seeing that they work 60, 80, or 100 hours a week until the project is finished. Commitment-oriented development derives its potency from its tremendous motivational ability—study after study has found that individual motivation is by far the largest single contributor to productivity. Developers make voluntary, personal commitments to the projects they work on, and they often go to extraordinary lengths to make their projects succeed.

Organizational Imposters

When used knowledgeably, either development style can produce high quality software economically and quickly. But both development styles have pathological lookalikes that don’t work nearly as well, and that can be difficult to distinguish from the genuine articles.

The process-imposter organization bases its practices on a slavish devotion to process for process’s sake. These organizations look at process-oriented organizations such as NASA’s Software Engineering Laboratory and IBM’s former Federal Systems Division. They observe that those organizations generate lots of documents and hold frequent meetings. They conclude that if they generate an equivalent number of documents and hold a comparable number of meetings they will be similarly successful. If they generate more documentation and hold more meetings, they will be even more successful! But they don’t understand that the documentation and the meetings are not responsible for the success; they are the side effects of a few specific effective processes. We call these organizations bureaucratic because they put the form of software processes above the substance. Their misuse of process is demotivating, which hurts productivity. And they’re not very enjoyable to work for.

The commitment-imposter organization focuses primarily on motivating people to work long hours. These organizations look at successful companies like Microsoft; observe that they generate very little documentation; offer stock options to their employees; and then require them to work mountains of overtime. They conclude that if they, too, minimize documentation, offer stock options, and require extensive overtime, they will be successful. The less documentation and the more overtime, the better! But these organizations miss the fact that Microsoft and other successful commitment-oriented companies don’t require overtime. They hire people who love to create software. They team these people with other people who love to create software just as much as they do. They provide lavish organizational support and rewards for creating software. And then they turn them loose. The natural outcome is that software developers and managers choose to work long hours voluntarily. Imposter organizations confuse the effect (long hours) with the cause (high motivation). We call the imposter organizations sweatshops because they emphasize working hard rather than working smart, and they tend to be chaotic and ineffective. They’re not very enjoyable to work for either.

Cargo Cult Software Engineering

At first glance, these two kinds of imposter organizations appear to be exact opposites. One is incredibly bureaucratic, and the other is incredibly chaotic. But one key similarity is actually more important than their superficial differences. Neither is very effective, and the reason is that neither understands what really makes its projects succeed or fail. They go through the motions of looking like effective organizations that are stylistically similar. But without any real understanding of why the practices work, they are essentially just sticking pieces of bamboo in their ears and hoping their projects will land safely. Many of their projects end up crashing because these are just two different varieties of cargo cult software engineering, similar in their lack of understanding of what makes software projects work.

Cargo cult software engineering is easy to identify. Cargo cult software engineers justify their practices by saying, “We’ve always done it this way in the past,” or “our company standards require us to do it this way”—even when those ways make no sense. They refuse to acknowledge the tradeoffs involved in either process-oriented or commitment-oriented development. Both have strengths and weaknesses. When presented with more effective, new practices, cargo cult software engineers prefer to stay in their wooden huts of familiar, comfortable and-not-necessarily-effective work habits. “Doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results is a sign of insanity,” the old saying goes. It’s also a sign of cargo cult software engineering.

The Real Debate

In this magazine and in many other publications, we spend our time debating whether process is good or individual empowerment (in other words, commitment-oriented development) might be better. This is a false dichotomy. Process is good, and so is individual empowerment. The two can exist side by side. Process-oriented organizations can ask for an extreme commitment on specific projects. Commitment-oriented organizations can use software engineering practices skillfully.

The difference between these two approaches really comes down to differences of style and personality. I have worked on several projects of each style, and have liked different things about each style. Some developers enjoy working methodically on an 8 to 5 schedule, which is more common in process-oriented companies. Other developers enjoy the focus and excitement that comes with making a 24×7 commitment to a project. Commitment-oriented projects are more exciting on average, but a process-oriented project can be just as exciting when it has a well defined and inspiring mission. Process-oriented organizations seem to degenerate into their pathalogical lookalikes less often than commitment-oriented organizations do, but either style can work well if it is skillfully planned and executed.

The fact that both process-oriented and commitment-oriented projects have pathological lookalikes has muddied the debate. Some projects conducted in each style succeed, and some fail. That allows a process advocate to point to the process success and commitment failures and claim that process is the key to success. It allows the commitment advocate to do the same thing.

The issue that has fallen by the wayside while we’ve been debating process vs. commitment is so blatant that, like the Edgar Allen Poe’s purloined letter, it may simply have been so obvious that we have overlooked it. We should not be debating process vs. commitment; we should be debating competence vs. incompetence. The real difference is not which style is chosen, but what education, training, and understanding is brought to bear on the project. Rather than debating process vs. commitment, we should be looking for ways to raise the average level of developer and manager competence. That will improve our chances of success regardless of which development style we choose.

Editor: Steve McConnell, Construx Software  |  More articles