Frederick P. Brooks Jr., Computer Design Innovator, Dies at 91

Frederick P. Brooks Jr., whose innovative work in computer design and software engineering helped shape the field of computer science, died on Thursday at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was 91. His death was confirmed by his son, Roger, who said Dr. Brooks had been in declining health since having a stroke two years ago. The New York Times reports: Dr. Brooks had a wide-ranging career that included creating the computer science department at the University of North Carolina and leading influential research in computer graphics and virtual reality. But he is best known for being one of the technical leaders of IBM’s 360 computer project in the 1960s. At a time when smaller rivals like Burroughs, Univac and NCR were making inroads, it was a hugely ambitious undertaking. Fortune magazine, in an article with the headline “IBM’s $5,000,000,000 Gamble,” described it as a “bet the company” venture.

Until the 360, each model of computer had its own bespoke hardware design. That required engineers to overhaul their software programs to run on every new machine that was introduced. But IBM promised to eliminate that costly, repetitive labor with an approach championed by Dr. Brooks, a young engineering star at the company, and a few colleagues. In April 1964, IBM announced the 360 as a family of six compatible computers. Programs written for one 360 model could run on the others, without the need to rewrite software, as customers moved from smaller to larger computers. The shared design across several machines was described in a paper, written by Dr. Brooks and his colleagues Gene Amdahl and Gerrit Blaauw, titled “Architecture of the IBM System/360.”
“That was a breakthrough in computer architecture that Fred Brooks led,” Richard Sites, a computer designer who studied under Dr. Brooks, said in an interview.

But there was a problem. The software needed to deliver on the IBM promise of compatibility across machines and the capability to run multiple programs at once was not ready, as it proved to be a far more daunting challenge than anticipated. Operating system software is often described as the command and control system of a computer. The OS/360 was a forerunner of Microsoft’s Windows, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. At the time IBM made the 360 announcement, Dr. Brooks was just 33 and headed for academia. He had agreed to return to North Carolina, where he grew up, and start a computer science department at Chapel Hill. But Thomas Watson Jr., the president of IBM, asked him to stay on for another year to tackle the company’s software troubles. Dr. Brooks agreed, and eventually the OS/360 problems were sorted out. The 360 project turned out to be an enormous success, cementing the company’s dominance of the computer market into the 1980s. “Fred Brooks was a brilliant scientist who changed computing,” Arvind Krishna, IBM’s chief executive and himself a computer scientist, said in a statement. “We are indebted to him for his pioneering contributions to the industry.”

Dr. Brooks published a book in 1975 titled, “The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering.” It was “a quirky classic, selling briskly year after year and routinely cited as gospel by computer scientists,” reports the Times.

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The Collapse of Complex Software

Nolan Lawson, writing in a blogpost: Anyone who’s worked in the tech industry for long enough, especially at larger organizations, has seen it before. A legacy system exists: it’s big, it’s complex, and no one fully understands how it works. Architects are brought in to “fix” the system. They might wheel out a big whiteboard showing a lot of boxes and arrows pointing at other boxes, and inevitably, their solution is… to add more boxes and arrows. Nobody can subtract from the system; everyone just adds. This might go on for several years. At some point, though, an organizational shakeup probably occurs — a merger, a reorg, the polite release of some senior executive to go focus on their painting hobby for a while. A new band of architects is brought in, and their solution to the “big diagram of boxes and arrows” problem is much simpler: draw a big red X through the whole thing. The old system is sunset or deprecated, the haggard veterans who worked on it either leave or are reshuffled to other projects, and a fresh-faced team is brought in to, blessedly, design a new system from scratch.

As disappointing as it may be for those of us who might aspire to write the kind of software that is timeless and enduring, you have to admit that this system works. For all its wastefulness, inefficiency, and pure mendacity (“The old code works fine!” “No wait, the old code is terrible!”), this is the model that has sustained a lot of software companies over the past few decades. Will this cycle go on forever, though? I’m not so sure. Right now, the software industry has been in a nearly two-decade economic boom (with some fits and starts), but the one sure thing in economics is that booms eventually turn to busts. During the boom, software companies can keep hiring new headcount to manage their existing software (i.e. more engineers to understand more boxes and arrows), but if their labor force is forced to contract, then that same system may become unmaintainable. A rapid and permanent reduction in complexity may be the only long-term solution.

One thing working in complexity’s favor, though, is that engineers like complexity. Admit it: as much as we complain about other people’s complexity, we love our own. We love sitting around and dreaming up new architectural diagrams that can comfortably sit inside our own heads — it’s only when these diagrams leave our heads, take shape in the real world, and outgrow the size of any one person’s head that the problems begin. It takes a lot of discipline to resist complexity, to say “no” to new boxes and arrows. To say, “No, we won’t solve that problem, because that will just introduce 10 new problems that we haven’t imagined yet.” Or to say, “Let’s go with a much simpler design, even if it seems amateurish, because at least we can understand it.” Or to just say, “Let’s do less instead of more.”

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Banking Giant Capital One Enters B2B Software Industry With Launch of New Business

Capital One, a major player in America’s banking industry with $434 billion in assets and more than 100 million customers, is launching Capitol One Software, “a business that develops and sells software products to companies scaling up their use of data and cloud computing,” reports Forbes. From the report: The new venture, which has been created by Capital One’s CEO and founder, Rich Fairbank, is based at the company’s headquarters in McLean, Virginia, and has its own dedicated personnel as well as access to software developers in Capital One’s 12,000-strong technology team. Its first product, Capital One Slingshot, helps companies speed up their adoption of Snowflake, a popular cloud data platform, and manage costs associated with it. […] Ravi Raghu, the head of Capital One Software, says executives at Capital One see its creation as a natural evolution of the overall company’s digital journey. “We’ve been talking of Capital One as a technology company for a while now. The best proof of that is [to become] a technology company that’s actually selling software. That innovation just runs in our DNA.”

Still, making Capital One Software a success will be no slam dunk. The markets the new business is targeting are big but they are also full of formidable competitors whose sole focus is on software and there are significant costs associated with things such as building teams that consult with customers to help them get the most out of the products they buy. Capital One may also need to reassure investors, who have seen its share price fall by almost 12% this year to $127.86 at close of trading on May 31, that its move into the software business will not distract executives from its core finance ones, especially as the economy shows signs it may be tilting towards recession.

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