'Laws' to Work By

Seven laws. No court in the world will lock you up for breaking any of them. But for corporate IT people, they're crucial - not just because of what they mean, but because of what users, managers and executives think they mean. That gap is what will really get you in trouble.

Parkinson's Law: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

Who said it: Historian C. Northcote Parkinson, in a 1955 article in The Economist.

What it means: We can stretch any work to last as long as necessary.

What too many people think it means: We can compress any project into a shrinking schedule.

Why the difference matters: We can't squeeze into impossible schedules, no matter how loudly the executives scream.

Moore's Law: "Transistor density on a manufactured semiconductor die doubles about every 18 months."

Who said it: Intel founder Gordon Moore, in a 1965 article for Electronics magazine. (Moore originally said density doubles every year.)

What it means: Chip makers keep getting better at cramming transistors onto chips.

What too many people think it means: Computers double their ability to get work done every 18 months.

Why the difference matters: Transistor density doesn't equal computer power. And even if it did, computer power doesn't equal the ability to get work done.

Brooks' Law: "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later."

Who said it: Frederick P. Brooks Jr., in his 1975 book The Mythical Man-Month.

What it means: Getting new team members up to speed delays development even more than just finishing the job with the existing team.

What too many people think it means: A crazy idea. If throwing more people at the problem doesn't help, how could it hurt?

Why the difference matters: Developing systems isn't like picking sweet corn. Until we all understand that, we'll keep wasting the time and people we throw at projects that slip their schedules.

Murphy's Law: "If there is any way to do it wrong, someone will."

Who said it: Air Force Capt. Edward A. Murphy, 1949.

What it means: Unless you bulletproof a procedure or system, things go wrong.

What too many people think it means: Things will always go wrong.

Why the difference matters: Failure isn't inevitable - unless we assume it is.

Hoare's Law (of Large Problems): "Inside every large problem is a small problem struggling to get out."

Who said it: Oxford professor C.A.R. Hoare, in a 1984 article for the journal The Pentagon.

What it means: Big problems are really made up of smaller problems.

What too many people think it means: Big problems are really small problems.

Why it matters: Finding a small problem at the center of a larger problem isn't enough to solve the larger problem - it's only a start. If you mistake the little solution for the big solution, you'll end up testing Brooks' Law.

Metcalfe's Law: "The value of a network grows as the square of the number of its users."

Who said it: Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe.

What it means: The more users who can communicate with one another on a network, the more useful it is.

What too many people think it means: The more users who are on the Internet, the more profitable it is.

Why the difference matters: Just ask any dot-com that's now a flaming wreck on the information superhighway.

Weinberg's Law: "If builders built buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization."

Who said it: Software engineering guru Gerald M. Weinberg.

What it means: It is possible to build better software.

What too many people think it means: All programmers are incompetent, and all software is junk.

Why the difference matters: Never mind professional pride - if users really believe software is junk, why should they keep paying for their own expensive software developers? They can get junk anywhere. Frank Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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