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How Do We Know What to Design?

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One easily thinks of the design of complex systems, hardware or software, as a rational process that has a rational model, such as that put forth by Herbert Simon, or that of Pahl and Beitz, or Winton Royce’s Waterfall Model for software engineering. Upon examination, though, such models don’t seem to fit the way real designers work. In particular, I would assert that it is impossible to set the requirements for such a design before beginning.

Several people have proposed alternate models, but in software engineering, at least, the Waterfall Model persists, tenaciously and disastrously. Why? Is there any hope for remedying this situation?


Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., is Kenan Professor of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was an architect of the IBM Stretch and Harvest computers. He was Corporate Project Manager for the IBM System/360, including development of the System/360 computer family hardware, and the Operating System/360 software. He founded the UNC Department of Computer Science in 1964 and chaired it for 20 years.

His research has been in computer architecture, software engineering, and interactive 3-D computer graphics (“virtual environments”). His best-known books are The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering (1975, 1995), and Computer Architecture: Concepts and Evolution (with G.A. Blaauw, 1997).

Dr. Brooks has received the ACM Turing Award and is a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society and a Foreign Member of the U.K. Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is currently a visiting scholar with Cambridge’s Rainbow group.

This talk is part of the Wednesday Seminars - Department of Computer Science and Technology series.

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