Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Mythical Man-Month – Extracts III

Source: The Mythical Man-Month

Conceptual Integrity

I will contend that conceptual integrity is the most important consideration in system design. It is better to have a system omit certain anomalous features and improvements, but to reflect one set of design ideas, than to have one that contains many good but independent and uncoordinated ideas. Unfortunately most programming systems reflect big conceptual disunity. Usually this arises not from a serial succession of master designers, but from the separation of design into many tasks done by many men.

Taking into account that the purpose of a programming system is to make a computer easy to use, the ratio of function to conceptual complexity is the ultimate test of system design. Neither function alone nor simplicity alone defines a good design.

Simplicity and straightforwardness proceed from conceptual integrity. Every part must reflect the same philosophies and the same balancing of desiderata. Every part must even use the same techniques in syntax and analogous notions in semantics. Ease of use, then, dictates unity of design, conceptual integrity.

How to get conceptual integrity ?

Conceptual integrity dictates that the design must proceed from one mind, or from a very small number of agreeing resonant minds. Schedule pressures, however, dictate that system building needs many hands. Two techniques are available for resolving this dilemma:

  • The first is a careful division of labor between architecture and implementation.
  • The second is the new way of structuring programming implementation teams such as surgical team.

Separation of labor between architecture and implementation.

It is a very powerful way of getting conceptual integrity on very large projects.
By the architecture of a system, I mean the complete and detailed specification of the user interface. For a computer this is the programming manual. For a compiler it is the language manual. For a control program it is the manuals for the language or languages used to invoke its functions. For the entire system it is the union of the manuals the user must consult to do his entire job.

The architect of a system, like the architect of a building, is the user's agent. It is his job to bring professional and technical knowledge to bear in the unalloyed interest of the user, as opposed to the interests of the salesman, the fabricator, etc.

Architecture must be carefully distinguished from implementation. As Blaauw has said, "Where architecture tells what happens, implementation tells how it is made to happen."

Objections to this technique

This is criticized with the following questions:

Are not the architects a new aristocracy, an intellectual elite, set up to tell the poor dumb implementers what to do?

The answer to this must be yes and no.
Yes, in the sense that there must be few architects, their product must endure longer than that of an implementer, and the architect sits at the focus of forces which he must ultimately resolve in the user's interest. If a system is to have conceptual integrity, someone must control the concepts. That is an aristocracy that needs no apology.

No, because the setting of external specifications is not more creative work than the designing of implementations. It is just different creative work. The design of an implementation, given an architecture, requires and allows as much design creativity, as many new ideas, and as much technical brilliance as the design of the external specifications. Indeed, the cost-performance ratio of the product will depend most heavily on the implementer, just as ease of use depends most heavily on the architect.

Has not all the creative work been sequestered for this elite, leaving the implementers as cogs in the machine?

Similarly, I observe that the external provision of an architecture enhances, not cramps, the creative style of an implementing group. They focus at once on the part of the problem no one has addressed, and inventions begin to flow. In an unconstrained implementing group, most thought and debate goes into architectural decisions, and implementation proper gets short shrift.

Won't one get a better product by getting the good ideas from all the team, following a democratic philosophy, rather than by restricting the development of specifications to a few?

I will certainly not contend that only the architects will have good architectural ideas. Often the fresh concept does come from an implementer or from a user. However, all my own experience convinces me, and I have tried to show, that the conceptual integrity of a system determines its ease of use. Good features and ideas that do not integrate with a system's basic concepts are best left out. If there appear many such important but incompatible ideas, one scraps the whole system and starts again on an integrated system with different basic concepts.


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