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Nov 6

Tom Demarco and Impossible Zones

by Chad, Michael Mah, Comments Off on Tom Demarco and Impossible Zones

Nov 6

November 6, 2005

Recently, I had a wonderful dinner, one-on-one, with a mentor I am most fond of, Tom Demarco, at his lovely home on the coast of Maine. Yes, Tom’s of Maine (different Tom). When I visit Tom, I playfully call him “Godfather”.


Tom, as many people know, has written several fabulous books on technology. In fact, one of his first books, Controlling Software Projects, was among the first to describe the statistical existence of what Larry Putnam called “The Impossible Zone”. It is the absolute limit beyond which projects simply have not gone any faster. Tom described the first time he saw a graph of projects, where the edge of the zone – and beyond – was delineated. He came to the conclusion that at the time, he had spent most of his professional life living in the Impossible Zone.

I find that many senior managers will have none of this talk about projects being “impossible”. That would wake up their tired, huddled masses to the realities of unrealistic deadlines and corporate denial. So I don’t say that this area is the Impossible Zone.

I say that when you look at a graph of real, factual, historical data, the zone is simply – “Where No Project Has Ever Gone Before”, in Star Trek terms. In many of my speeches, I ask audiences, “How many of you are given a project deadline first, before anything else?” All the hands go up. I then ask, “If your deadlines were plotted on this chart, how many believe they might be in the Impossible Zone?” All the hands stay up. Tom still has a lot of company.

Lately it seems I’ve been consulting on more projects that are in time-trouble. It’s no surprise that according to a Standish Group Study published in the June 2003 issue of Computer, that as many as 80 percent are late and over budget, and that 40 percent are abandoned. (These figures are even worse than similar measures taken 10 years ago.)

My experience on this (since I’ve been consulting in the IT and software field for over 18 years), isn’t that projects as a whole aren’t exhibiting very high levels of productivity. They are! What we can do today VASTLY exceeds what was possible 10 years ago, and project data that my partners at QSM have been gathering proves it. It’s that the deadlines are getting even worse with each year. Just 2 weeks ago, I consulted to the management team of a very high-pressure, date-driven project. A forecast for the most likely estimate scenario was given to their BigCheese. BigCheese was not happy. He admonished the hapless manager reporting to him as follows: “The date is unacceptable. Change the date.”

To what, might I ask?

This organization is exhibiting defects at twice the industry average. My mentor Tom Demarco, in his book Slack, Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency talked about projects working at breakneck speed. There’s a reason why they call it “breakneck”. See my Cutter Consortium article here.

My point to this diatribe is, that when teams attempt projects at breakneck speed, we can guarantee that high defects will be the case. Not just 50 percent more. It could be 200 percent more, like the company just described. It could be 500 percent more, which is the norm, when you try to compress the date by even as little as 20 percent. It’s non-linear, which is why as many as 40 percent of projects are cancelled, to the tune of $80 billion to $100 billion per year in write-downs and losses. This is costing us dearly.

I guess what it really comes down to is that high-defect, poor quality software in our industry, is these days more of a fait accompli. I would like that to change. I think about this when I am conscious of the amount of software that do things like run our medical systems, control our automobiles, manage the power grid, and fly our airplanes. Life in high technology isn’t just about the hands of the clock at the moment we turn on the systems that we’ve worked so hard to build.


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