Trying to Think Like Fred Brooks

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By his Doctoral student, James S. Lipscomb, on the occasion of the UNC, Chapel Hill Computer Science Department's 50th anniversary, May 2, 2015, text simplified Nov. 2022.

Frederick P. Brooks, Jr: from Wikipedia media.

Fredrick P. Brooks, Jr
  1. Ordinary Genius
  2. No Pattern
  3. Fred Brooks Think-alike Contest
  4. No Extraneous Agenda
  5. No Way / First Principles Thinking

"Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought." - Matsuo Basho

1. Ordinary Genius

Dr. Brooks is by many regarded as what can be called an "ordinary genius".
"There are two kinds of geniuses: the 'ordinary' and the 'magicians'. An ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they've done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. Even after we understand what they have done it is completely dark. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest calibre." - Mark Kac.
Feynman Diagrams are sometimes given as an example of a product of magician genius.  Instead of performing difficult mathematical derivations in Quantum Field Theory to calculate arbitrarily nested interpretations of a particle interaction, one draws Feynman Diagrams and then simply writes down the answer by copying parts of the diagrams in sequence to the mathematical equivalent of each graphed symbol, gradually building up sometimes a pages long equation.

Returning to the ordinary genius as described in the quote above, "There is no mystery as to how his mind works."  In some cases perhaps.  Mystery is in surplus in the case of Dr. Brooks.  Dr. Brooks's ordinary genius of insight and decision making seem to be simple, common sense, the essence, something that any one of us could have thought of.  But we didn't, and figuring out why is vexatious.  The ordinary genius is no less worthy of study than the magician genius, perhaps more so.

Of all the geniuses that live among us, none fascinate more than the ordinary geniuses, because they transform unexpectedly from the familiar into the wise.  For those, one seeks nuggets of insight that can magically lay the mystery to rest.  The familiar difficult decision, at least as seen by those unschooled in righteous judgment, has something of this character; the question is usually innocent and straightforward, but is capable of becoming a monster of alternatives missed or of uncertain value, as to yield only to exceptional insight.  Yes, I adapted this paragraph from that other one ....
"Of all the monsters that fill the nightmares of our folklore, none terrify more than werewolves, because they transform unexpectedly from the familiar into horrors. For these, one seeks bullets of silver that can magically lay them to rest.  The familiar software project, at least as seen by the nontechnical manager, has something of this character; it is usually innocent and straightforward, but is capable of becoming a monster of missed schedules, blown budgets, and flawed products." - from Brooks "No Silver Bullet—Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering" Computer Magazine,  20 (4): 1987.
On two occasions a graduate student walked up and announced something like, "I want to be like Dr. Brooks.  I'm going to try to be like Dr. Brooks.", and then walked away without me saying anything.  Why did they say this and why to me?  Weirds me out.  But I did watch them, and, over time, no change.  This suggests some mysterious, essential difficulty.

2. No pattern

Presented before the faculty was a matter for decision.  It went back and forth, but alternatives seemed equal.  Then, one faculty member spoke (approximate quote - I was there):  "Let's wait for Dr. Brooks to get back in town.  When he hears this, he will say something.  We don't know what he will say, but it will make the correct choice clear and obvious to all of us."  Nods all around.  Grown men looking up to Dr. Brooks as if as children.  I noticed especially, "We don't know what he will say,"  There is no Brooks-like decision.  His wisdom seems to not have a pattern.

3. Fred Brooks Think-alike Contest

Here, you give it a try.  You get two chances:

Round 1

A professor was up for his tenure decision.  He had asked back when he arrived at UNC not teach numerical analysis, because he did not know it and intensely hated it.  Other than that, he was, some say, the best teacher (besides Dr. Brooks) in the department.  Some students chose their electives only by his teaching schedule.  The tenure rules were that a candidate must score either "medium" or "high" on both teaching and also on research.  This candidate scored "high" on teaching but "low" on research.  He would be out.  The rules are not flexible.

Pause to think of what you might do.

A lesser man might have denied tenure.  But Dr. Brooks considered the purpose of the rule, that the rule existed to weed out the great teacher today, who would still be a great teacher in a few years, but teaching things that nobody cared about anymore.  Good research can prevent stagnation.  Dr. Brooks considered that maybe something else can, may be another, equal test.  Brooks assigned the candidate to teach numerical analysis graduate level, two semesters, and by all accounts, with struggle and anguish, he did a good job.  If he could learn his most hated subject, he could learn and stay current in anything.  Tenure approved.  And righteously so.

Dr. Brooks did not give Steve Weiss any special breaks really.  He had to meet at its essence the same requirement as did anyone else, and in so doing not a single person from any point of view could or did voice dissatisfaction.

Round 2

A terminal Master's student, who was terminal because he had flunked not just out of the degree program but out of graduate school itself and then re-admitted as terminal, nevertheless wrote a Master's thesis that read to Dr. Brooks, and to at least one other member of the Master's committee, more like a dissertation, and the student even labeled it a Dissertation on the title page, because academics value accuracy.

Pause to think of what you might do.

A lesser man might have just signed-off the student and closed the book on him, as it were, cowed by fear of personal or professional risk in sticking one's neck out for a student whose subsequent failure, should that happen, might raise questions coming back to Dr. Brooks.  But for Dr. Brooks does not live in fear.

Dr. Brooks called a meeting with the student acknowledging to the student that the purpose of the Ph.D. course work additional beyond the Masters, of the Ph.D. Written, and of the Ph.D. Oral was to prepare the student to pursue a dissertation, and that the student having written a dissertation it made no sense to require these prerequisites.  Nevertheless, Dr, Brooks proposed to the student to go forward on two principles (approximate quote):
  1. "I don't want anyone to say that Jim Lipscomb got away with something, so you are going to have to pass the extra courses, the Written, and the Oral just like everyone else, and ...
  2. ... if you don't, then we shall not have another conversation about whether or not this makes any sense."
Circumstances being what they were, I accepted  And I was righteously tasked.  I cleared all hurdles the same ones that everyone else.  No further conversation of course.

Dr. Brooks did not give me any special breaks really.  I had to meet at its essence the same requirements as did anyone else, and in so doing not a single person from any point of view could or did voice dissatisfaction.

4. No Extraneous Agenda

Starting late, finishing first

Perhaps a dozen chemistry labs around the world had already started on building interactive molecular graphics systems to enable crystallographers to manually assemble bits of large protein structure models into views of experimental electron-density data and thereby build a model of the protein with full atomic detail.  Dr. Brooks decided, with the coaxing of a university Provost (or Dean?), that he too would assemble a team to build such a molecular graphics system (GRIP-75).  According to crystallographers who used it, it was the first to succeed, which their published structure paper stated in its abstract viewable online at Tsernoglou D, Petsko GA, Tu AT, "Protein sequencing by computer graphics". Biochim. Biophys. Acta. (April 1977).

So how did Dr. Brooks start late and finish first?

Other labs had extraneous agendas at every point:
  1. Other labs hated spending money at the large university computing centers, and do not we all.  Such ongoing money is hard to find in the compartmentalized structure of grants.  If the lab had its own minicomputer, it could compute, at min-computer speed and size of course, anything at will for minimal, constant overhead cost.  They saw building a protein structure fitting system as a way to get funding for a lab minicomputer, to be used principally for computation.  Such lab computers typically had 16-bit size limited memory, which was too small for electron density data without heroic programming.for data swapping and data fragmentation and reassembly.
  2. Other labs mostly caved to the low drawing speed of displays of the time and tried to accomplish the protein fitting task with heavy flicker and not enough lines visible even then to see enough context to make proper decisions. This, and the 16 bit CPU limitation above added complexities and slowed programming so much that such systems, when they did succeed, were late (e.g. Washington Univ. MMS-X).
  3. Other labs had only a graduate student or two was assigned to write code, the graphics system being secondary to the primary purpose of obtaining a minicomputer for lab computations. To succeed this student had to be proficient in all skills.  Learning these in sequence took much time, and these systems were late.
By contrast Dr. Brooks shaped decisions to fit the containers of the essences of the problem at hand:
  1. Brooks evaluated that the large electron density data was inherently a 24-bit size issue, best and quickest addressed by interactive interaction with a 24-bit computer, the IBM 360/50 at the computer center, while his lab computer (DEC PDP 11/45) with a display did the joystick part of the job.  He solved the problem of cost per hour at the university computer center by buying a bank of memory dedicated to this project on the university computer, but also available for the computer center when not doing our graphics, in exchange for no hourly charge.
  2. Brooks evaluated the drawing speed required for the display and held to that spec, even at one point returning to the manufacturer a display that did not meet his spec.  Waiting years for a display up to the job made the eventual programming very fast, saving time overall.
  3. Brooks obtained funding for a large, diverse team that could solve in parallel problems requiring diverse expertise.  At the core he placed what best practices calls a Surgical Team, a small team for effective communication and for conceptual integrity, four people here to do just the application coding without distractions, providing for them the same programming language for the two communicating systems, custom system communications code, a graphics package, an analog to digital converter interface, memory mapping, and more.
All of this may seem obvious in retrospect.  But the patience and willpower to wait until conditions are right in a race to be first with everyone else years ahead is hard to express to one who has not lived it.

5. No Way / First Principles Thinking

To summarize:

Bruce Lee, besides being a star of martial arts movies, was also a serious student of the martial arts. He learned many Ways, the Way of the Crane for example.  Each is a complete, consistent system. Bruce Lee studied these Ways with an eye towards which might be best.  His conclusion was that the best Way is "No Way".  Rather than following a set plan or set teaching one must flow like water, not in the meek sense, but rapidly, vigorously, and forcefully to instantly take the shape of the container (the situation).  He grew this idea into the philosophy of "having no limitation as limitation".

Elon Musk (Tesla) employs the similar idea of First Principles Thinking in three steps, solving a problem not by starting from where we are, but from down below at the essence of what needs solving, leading upward to sometimes a novel, better solution.

Dr. Brooks' thinking seems to work like these two things, which although expressed differently may be substantially the same.

Image credit

Frederick P. Brooks, Jr: From Wikipedia media.


 -- March 2015, last updated Nov 2022.

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