Top critical review
The apotheosis of meaningless measurement
on June 26, 1999
Sometimes I question the need for philosophy, then a book like this comes along and I remember why philosophy is important. Philosophers do us the service of carefully analyzing premises, claims, and all the varied artifices of thought. Philosophers notice the clouds beneath the castle. Watts Humphrey's book is in need of a philosophical overhaul. It is a fine expression of 19th-century ideas about scientific management and the nature of human cognition, but takes little note of modern revelations about how human minds work, and how software design happens.
The book is an ode to measurement. Humphrey doesn't justify or explain his measurement theory, though. He seems more intent on telling us what to do than on helping us ask questions like "What do these numbers mean?" He proposes ways to measure quality, but not ways to understand goodness; ways to measure productivity, but not ways to understand productivity in relation to our ambitions. Reflection, inspiration, collaboration, dialogue, discovery, invention, ingenuity, all of these vital processes are ignored in his calculus. But since his calculus is embedded in a prescription for what we're supposed to do, anything left out is driven underground (or underwater, like an animal that doesn't get a ticket for Noah's Ark). It's a good thing for the technology that so few people are disciplined in the way Humphrey proposes.
I just want to point out that there is an alternative to the Brave New World of Watts Humphrey and the SEI. Search for books by Gerald Weinberg and you'll find a polar opposite view of software engineering as a social and cognitive discipline. Weinberg's book on measurement "Quality Software Management, Vol. 2: First-Order Measurement" is a must read.
I also recommend "Things That Make Us Smart" and "Cognition in the Wild", two books that startled me by showing how much cognitive psychology could help the software engingeering craft, if ever we computer people but wake up and take notice.
Discipline is important in any search for excellence. Let's build our discipline on a sound and meaningful foundation, eh?