PPB and the Mythical Man Hour

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During the analyst conference call accompanying Paddy Power Betfair’s 2016 annual results statement in early March, chief executive Breon Corcoran gave an interesting answer to a question regarding the developmental firepower now at the company’s disposal.

Explaining why simply having more people working on a project did not necessarily mean the task was completed quicker, Corcoran said it was “very tempting at a time like this to introduce further complexity by spending even more money on technology.”

He then went on to namecheck a “seminal work” from the 1970s which posits the simple proposition that simply adding more software developers to a project will not produce efficiencies and can actually lengthen the time taken to complete a project. “Some things just take time,” he said. “A baby takes nine months to deliver – nine women can’t have a baby in one month.”

The comments immediately sent GamCrowd News scurrying to Wikipedia to discover which seminal work he was referencing and hence we subsequently came across the work of Fred Brooks. The book he is most famous for is The Mythical Man-Month: Essays in Software Engineering which was first published in 1975. The central theme of the book is to posit that adding manpower to a software project will actually lengthen the time taken to complete it.

His theory is based on his time working at IBM in the sixties and seventies. His basic premise was that complex programming projects are difficult to partition into discrete tasks. Assigning more programmers to a late-running project will inevitably delay it further because of the time required to bring new programmers up to speed and due to the “increased communication overhead” which will consumer even more time. In the end, each new person added to a project delays it further.

Brooks followed up his work over the subsequent decades and in the mid-1990s he wrote a paper called ‘No Silver Bullet’ in which he introduced the idea that there is no single development, either in technology or management technique, which by itself promises even one order-of-magnitude improvement within a decade in productivity, in reliability or in simplicity.

“Of all the monsters who fill our nightmares of our folklore, none terrify more than werewolves, because they transform unexpectedly from the familiar to horrors. For these, we seek bullets of silver than can magically lay them to rest,” he wrote in the introduction. “The familiar software project has something of this character (at least as seen by the non-technical manager), usually innocent and straightforward, but capable of becoming a monster of missed schedules, blown budgets and flawed products.”

He makes an analogy with medical science. “The first step towards the management of disease was replacement of demon theories and humours theories by the germ theory. That very step, in itself, dashed all hopes of magical solutions. It told workers the progress would be made stepwise, at great effort, and that a persistent, unremitting care would have to be paid to a discipline of cleanliness. So it is with software engineering today.”

In referencing Brooks, Corcoran likely had more than half an eye on the investor reaction to Betfair’s results as expressed by the analysts. Famously short-term as the City is, persuading them that the work being done behind the scenes at Paddy Power Betfair would pay off in the long-term will give the company breathing space as it completes the job of integration.

In saying that scale was now vital to online gambling, he said that the company has 100-plus software engineers working on projects with the objective of producing a single platform which was “efficient, scalable, flexible and controllable and that can support multiple brands, channels and jurisdictions.”

Paddy Power Betfair is arguably the most important company in the space right now. If its integration goes according to plan – and there is every indication that it is - it will be a fearsome competitor and will pose questions for every other operator in the space. It will also, importantly, be setting the technological pace. That makes it the company to watch for anyone large or small.