One woman can’t have a baby in nine months

As all software developers know, nine women can’t have a baby in a month. Or in Fred Brooks’s more elegant phrasing: “The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned.” (The Mythical Man Month, p. 17) The point, of course, is that some tasks are, as Brooks would say, “sequentially constrained”. They’re going to take a certain amount of time no matter what — the time can’t be reduced by having more people work on them.

On the other hand, is it actually the case that one woman can have a baby in nine months? Suppose we have just been put in charge of Project New Baby that must produce a brand new baby in nine months. How should we staff the project. Easy enough — nine women can’t have a baby in a month, right? No point in overstaffing so we’ve just got to find a couple, make sure they’re both fertile and interested in having a kid, and we’re good to go. But wait a sec’, what’s the chance they’ll miss our nine month deadline by more than a month? Pretty high, it turns out.

Typically a couple trying to get pregnant has about a 16% chance in any given month. Once they’ve conceived, there’s, sadly, about a 15-20% chance of miscarriage, usually within the first three months. So the chance our couple will produce a baby nine months from now is only .16 × .85 or 13.6%. If we wanted to we could compute the average time we should expect it to take for one couple to have a baby, using math similar to that in an earlier post. But suppose the deadline is hard — we really, really need to finish Project New Baby in nine months — is there anything we can do?

Sure. Throw bodies at it. While a single couple has a 86.4% chance of missing our deadline, if we had two couples, the chance that they’d both miss it is only .8642 or about 74.6%. With three couples, the chance of blowing it is down to 64.4%. To figure out how many couples we need to have a P chance of hitting our deadline, just plug P into this formula:

Of course, this could get expensive if we need to be really certain of hitting that deadline — to have a 90% chance of hitting it we’d need sixteen couples. But depending on how important Project New Baby and it’s deadline are, it might be worth it.

So what in software is like making babies? Let’s take a look at how Brooks himself tied making babies to making software:

The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned. Many software tasks have this characteristic because of the sequential nature of debugging. (p. 17)

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find anywhere where he explains what he means by “the sequential nature of debugging” but I can see how debugging is like having a baby. And not that they both can be incredibly painful and that you have a great feeling of relief when you’re done. The similarity that I see is that the time it takes to find a bug has a large random component, like trying to conceive a child. Basically when you’re looking for a bug, there’s some probability p that you’ll find the bug for each unit of time that you spend looking, just like a couple has a 16% chance of getting pregnant for each month they spend trying. If you’re a skillful debugger and know your code really well p will be higher but there’s always a random element — if you go down the wrong path it can take you a while to realize it and all that time is lost whereas if you had tried a different path first, you might have found the bug right away. This is why it’s almost useless to try to estimate how long it will take to find a bug. You could find it in the next five minutes or five weeks from now. Once you find the bug of course you also have to fix it but that tends to be less random — unlike a pregnancy, which always lasts about nine months after conception, different bugs will require more or less work to fix, but once you’ve found it you can usually characterize how big a job it’ll be. And for many, if not most, bugs finding them is the hard part — once you’ve well and truly tracked them down, the fix is often trivial.

All of which suggests we can use the same technique to speeding up debugging as we did on Project New Baby — throw bodies at it. Suppose we’re ten days from the end of a release and there’s one last serious bug to be tracked down. Suppose my chance of finding it is 10% per day. The chance that I won’t find it in the next ten days is (1 − .1)10 or about 35%. But if there’s someone else who can also look for it — say a pair programming partner — who also has a 10% chance of finding it per day, and we both work at it separately. Then the chance that the bug will remain at large by the end of the release drops to 12%. If we can throw even more developers at it, then the chances of the bug escaping drop even more: 4% chance with three developers, 1% with four, 0.5% with five.

Obviously, to be able to take advantage of this strategy requires having multiple developers with enough familiarity with the code to be able to pitch in. Which seems to me a strong argument for practices such as pair programming and collective code ownership. An interesting side question is whether, if you do have developers to throw at debugging in this way, it is better for them to work independently or should they pair up for the debugging on the grounds that two heads are better than one?

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One Response to “One woman can’t have a baby in nine months”

  1. Tagging the Web Daily 03/07/2013 | PAB Skunkworks Weblog Says:

    [...] Brooks wrote in The Mythical Man-Month the well-known quotation that “The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are [...]

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