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RISE: Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (DeMarco & Lister, 1987)

August 19, 2013 0 Comments

[The third in a series of posts on Readings in Software Engineering. Previous post: The Mythical Man-Month, Frederick J. Brooks Jr. (1975/1995).]

Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister, Dorset House Publishing Co., New York, 1987, softbound, 188 pages. Original acquisition date unknown; replacement copy acquired 11 Oct 1995. Current version is 3rd edition (published 2013), but my review below is based on the 1987 edition.

Important work. Highly recommended.

DeMarco and Lister have spent decades reviewing and advising on software engineering projects, mostly with an eye towards why projects succeed and fail. They have written several important books, together and separately, on the subject, and while their names are (rightly) well-known, their works are not read as widely as they should be. At this point — the third RISE post — I begin to wonder if I should have standard boilerplate at the beginning of each post talking about the vast sums of money that are lost each year due to delayed, flawed, or failed IT projects, and about how much of that money could be saved if only IT managers and engineers would actually read and follow these writings. Consider it said, and I’ll move along.

In Peopleware, perhaps their best-known book, DeMarco and Lister focus on the fundamentally misguided approaches that organizations in general and IT managers (and their managers) specifically take with regards to IT projects. Their opening chapter sums up their findings (emphasis in original):

We’ve now [from 1977 to 1987] accumulated more than five hundred project histories, all of them from real-world development efforts.

We observe that about fifteen percent of all projects studied came to naught. They were canceled or aborted or “postponed” or they delivered products that were never used. For bigger projects, the odds are even worse. Fully twenty-five percent of projects that lasted more than twenty-five work-years or more failed to complete. . . . For the overwhelming majority of the bankrupt projects we studied, there was not a single technological issue to explain the failure. (pp.4-5)

DeMarco and Lister, drawing on experiences from 25 to 35 years ago, go on to explain the bad practices in IT management that cause such failures, as well as some corrective measures. It is a sad commentary on our industry that their examples will seem all too familiar to anyone working in IT development in the second decade of the 21st century.

As the table of contents (end of post) shows, D&L cover five major themes:

  • Managing the project and in particular the project personnel
  • Finding and keeping the right people
  • Creating a productive office environment
  • Building effective development teams
  • Making professional software engineering fun

Here are some relevant quotes, taken from each chapter (again, emphasis in original; quotes and page numbers from the 1987 printing):

The major problems of our work are not as much technological as sociological in nature. (p. 4)

For most thinking workers, making an occasional mistake is a natural and healthy part of their work. But there can be an almost Biblical association between error on the job and sin. This is an attitude we need to take specific pains to change. (p. 8)

Overtime for salaried workers is a figment of the naive manager’s imagination. Oh, there might be some benefit in a few extra hours worked on a Saturday to meet a Monday deadline, but that’s almost always followed by an equal portion of compensatory “undertime” while the workers catch up with their lives. (p. 15)

Quality, far beyond that required by the end user, is a means to higher productivity. (p. 22)

Projects on which the boss applied no schedule pressure whatsoever (“Just wake me up when you’re done.”) had the highest productivity of all. (p. 29)

The false hopes engendered by easy technological non-solutions [to productivity] are like those Sirens that tempted poor Odysseus. Each one reaches out to you with her own beguiling message, an attractive fallacy that leads nowhere. As long as you believe them, you’re going to be reluctant to do the hard work necessary to build a healthy corporate culture. (p. 31)

There are a million ways to lose a work day, but not even a single way to get one back. (p. 35)

Almost without exception, the workspaces given to intellect workers [e.g., software engineers] are noisy, interruptive, unprivate, and sterile. (p. 40)

While this [10 to 1] productivity differential among programmers is understandable, there is also a 10 to 1 difference in productivity among software organizations. — Software Productivity [by Harlan Mills]

Workers who reported before the exercise that their workplace was acceptably quiet were one-third more likely to deliver zero-defect work. (p. 55)

Gilb’s Law: Anything you need to quantify can be measured in some way that is superior to not measuring it at all. (Tom Gilb) (p. 59)

Environmental Factor = Uninterrupted Hours / Body-Present Hours. (p. 66)

It is natural that the telephone [and I might add here: e-mail, text messaging, social networks, tweets, etc.] should have reshaped somewhat the way we do business, but it ought not to have blinded us to the [negative] effects of the interruption. (p. 72)

Where there are sufficient doors, workers can control noise and interruptability to suit their changing needs. (p. 75)

Without communal eating, no group can hold together. (citing A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander) (p. 90)

The final outcome of any effort is more a function of who does the work than of how the work is done. (p. 93)

The need for uniformity is a sign of insecurity on the part of management. Strong managers don’t care when teams members cut their hair or whether they wear ties. Their pride is tied only to their staff’s accomplishments. (p. 97)

You should use [aptitude tests], just not for hiring. The typical aptitude test you buy or build can be a wonderful self-assessment vehicle for your people. (p. 103)

The best organizations are consciously striving to be best. This is a common goal that provides common direction, joint satisfaction, and a strong binding effect. (p. 111)

The obsession with Methodologies in the workplace is another instance of the high-tech illusion. It stems from the belief that what really matters is the technology. (p. 119)

When a group of people fuse into a meaningful whole, the entire character of the work changes. The challenge of the work is important, but not in and of itself; it is important because it gives us something to focus on together. (p. 121)

A jelled team is a group of people so strongly knit that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. . . . Once a team begins to jell, the probability of success goes up dramatically. (p. 123)

The most surprising thing about the Black Team was not how good it was at the beginning, but how much it improved during the next year. Some magic was happening. The team was forming a personality of its own. (p. 130)

In no time at all, we came up with lots of sure-fire ways to inhibit the formation of teams and disrupt project sociology. These measures, taken together, constitute a strategy we dubbed teamicide. Our short list of teamicide techniques is presented below:

  • defensive management
  • bureaucracy
  • physical separation
  • fragmentation of people’s time
  • quality reduction of the product
  • phony deadlines
  • clique control (p. 133)

Most organizations don’t set out to consciously kill teams. They just act that way. (p. 139)

The best success is one in which here is no evident management, in which the team works as a genial aggregation of peers. (p. 141)

The best bosses take some chances. . . . The suggestion here is that they [manage] only by exercising their natural authority. (p. 148)

Presented below is an admittedly simplistic list of the elements of a chemistry-building strategy for a healthy organization:

  • Make a cult of quality.
  • Provide lots of satisfying closure.
  • Build a sense of eliteness.
  • Allow and encourage heterogeneity.
  • Preserve and protect successful teams.
  • Provide strategic but not tactical direction.

There are more. (p. 151)

The thoughtful manager . . . may nonetheless feel a need to replace some of the lost disorder that has breathed so much energy into the work. This leads to a policy of constructive reintroduction of small amounts of disorder. (p. 160)

The mark of the best manager is an ability to single out the few key spirits who have the proper mix of perspective and maturity and then turn them loose. (p. 170)

Choose your terrain carefully, assemble your facts, and speak up. (p. 174)



1. Somewhere Today, a Project Is Failing
2. Make a Cheeseburger, Sell a Cheeseburger
3. Vienna Waits for You
4. Quality — If Time Permits
5. Parkinson’s Law Revisited
6. Laetrile

7. The Furniture Police
8. “You Never Get Anything Done Around Here Between 9 and 5”
9. Saving Money On Space

Intermezzo: Productivity Measurement and Unidentified Flying Objects

10. Brain Time vs. Body Time
11. The Telephone
12. Bring Back the Door
13. Taking Umbrella Steps


14. The Hornblower Factor
15. Hiring a Juggler
16. Happy to Be Here
17. The Self-Healing System


18. The Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts
19. The Black Team
20. Teamicide
21. A Spaghetti Dinner
22. Open Kimono
23. Chemistry for Team Formation


24. Chaos and Order
25. Free Electrons
26. Holgar Dasks

About the Author:

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor for the BYU Computer Science Department. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 720.895.1405 or at

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