Jeff Gainer - Book Review: Death March by Edward Yourdon

by Jeff Gainer

 (Author's note: This article was originally published in CyberJihad.)

Death March: The Complete Software Developer's Guide to Surviving "Mission Impossible" Projects by Edward Yourdon.

Prentice-Hall, 213 Pages.

US$ 24.95 C$ 34.95


 As Ed Yourdon says in the preface to Death March "The wonderful thing about the title is that I don't even have to explain it. Every time I mention the book to friends and colleagues, they just laugh and say, 'Oh, yeah, you must be talking about my project.'"


Though some may not need a definition,

the book begins by defining a "death march" as any project where the schedule has been arbitrarily compressed by half, the budget has been reduced by 50% or more, the requirements of the project are more than 50% of what can be reasonably expected, or for whatever reason, the risk of project failure is greater than 50%.


How common are death marches?

A study by IT Cost Management Strategies of over 7000 development projects (cited in the July 21, 1997 edition of Computerworld), showed that 55% were over budget (that is, with cost overruns of more than 50%), 50% were late (needing at least twice the estimated time), and 30% were incomplete (the product was delivered with 50% or less of the planned functionality). In other words, a death march is just about every project in these crazy days of compressed development cycles.


How did we get into this mess?

Next, Ed discusses why death marches occur-because of intense competition, because of organizational politics, because we don't manage properly, because we get saddled with naive promises made by marketing, or because of the naïve optimism of youth (known as the "we can do it over the weekend" phenomenon). One of the greatest values of the book is that it can teach you how to recognize a death march, understand why it got that way, and then you can make an educated decision as to whether you want to be involved or not.


Now what?

Despite the subtitle, there are no simple, clear cut solutions in this book. The issues are simply too complex. Chapters deal, in turn, with the issues of politics, negotiating games, peopleware issues, tools and process management. Ed comes to the sobering conclusion that there are no silver bullets.


And the really disturbing conclusion:

"Death marches are the norm, not the exception," is Ed's gloomy conclusion. Although software development is populated with intelligent programmers and managers, death marches occur "because the competitive business pressure demands it and the new technical opportunities invite it," he says.


Death March is a short and disturbing book--usefully short, because if you really need to read the book, you probably don't have time to read it. But for anyone involved with project or technical management, it is a must-read. And it's not a bad idea for the marketing and sales people who sometime spawn the death marches to give it a look, too.


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Copyright © 1997 by Jeff Gainer. All rights reserved.