Obamacare's "Man Month" Problem

A blog about business and economics.
Oct. 21 2013 7:23 AM

Obamacare's "Man Month" Problem

Botched literary references aside, a number of correspondents suggested to me that the book that administration officials really need to read to understand the challenges with a "tech surge" approach to fixing the Obamacare Web interface is Frederick Brooks' classic The Mythical Man-Month.

This is a book I have not actually read, but the reference is common enough in development circles that I think I can relay the basic point. Imagine a programming task that will take a skilled programmer a year to complete. Now imagine a boss who wants the project done in a month. The programmer says, "I can't do it that fast." So the boss says, "Let's hire 11 more skilled programmers—we have 12 months' of work to do, and I want the job finished in one month, so I need 12 guys."

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Brooks' point is that this doesn't really work. Not that you can't do collaborative software development projects (obviously you can—they happen all the time), but the complexity of the work really spirals upward once you start adding more people, because coordinating what everyone's doing is a difficult task all on its own.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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