The return of the hacker

Rethinking projects, progress, innovation and teams


Advances in Project Management


By Prof Darren Dalcher

Director, National Centre for Project Management
Lancaster University Management School

United Kingdom



Recent articles in the series focused on entrepreneurship (alongside innovation and creativity), and on the need to reconnect with people at the core of management work. This article links the two areas while revisiting established writing in the domain of managing software projects, and people, and highlighting some of the pioneering thinking that has emerged from that domain before turning to explore new possibilities that can refresh some of the insights and renew some of the conversations.

The mythical man-month: Mixing effort and progress

Re-reading old classics can prove to be both a source of immense pleasure and intense frustration. The pleasure comes from being re-acquainted with an old friend after an extended absence. It is often enriched by the ability to make sense of and see afresh through some of the ideas and writing that appeared in the original source. The passage of time often allows for progress to be seen through an informed lens. But therein also lies the source of deep frustration, when 55 years after the fact, many of the lessons and insights remain equally relevant, yet still appear not to have been embraced or understood.

The mythical man-month was written by Fred Brooks (1975) to recount his experience of managing a very large and rather complex project for IBM ten years earlier. It contains a series of essays that enable the readers to join Brooks in making sense of his management journey. The book is the undisputed best-seller in software engineering, selling over a million copies. Yet, its appeal extends well beyond the realms of the software engineering community, generating reviews, citations and correspondence from lawyers, doctors, psychologists and sociologists (Brooks, 1995; p. 254). If we look for the underlying reason for the enduring appeal of the book, it might well be that the focus on software engineering is simply the context utilised for a more intimate reflection on people, teams, interactions, communication and achievement in projects; areas that still merit attention and that may still defy full understanding.

Indeed, the challenges, constraints and tribulations recounted by Brooks reflect the experiences still encountered on many large projects. Brooks metaphorically locates large-system projects in the pre-historic tar pits where ‘many great and powerful beasts have thrashed violently… Most have met goals, schedules and budgets. Large and small, massive or wiry, (yet) team after team has become entangled in the tar’. (Brooks, 1995; p. 4)

To this day, the annals of failure are still filled with many a great behemoth mired in the metaphorical tar pits. Brooks notes that everyone seems to be surprised by the stickiness of the problem, before asserting that more software projects have gone awry for lack of calendar time than for all other reasons combined (p. 14). He duly identifies a number of contributing causes (which are paraphrased below):

  • Estimation: Techniques for estimating are poorly developed and reflect an unvoiced assumption that all will go well
  • Techniques: Estimation approaches tend to confuse effort with progress, fallaciously assuming that people and time are interchangeable
  • Position: The inherent uncertainty of the estimates allows managers to collapse schedules in order to respond to wishes and expectations
  • Monitoring: Schedule progress is poorly monitored
  • Action: The response to identified slippage is to add resource (manpower), which Brooks equates with dousing a fire with gasoline

However, there are two additional, albeit linked, monumental issues that Brooks labels as fallacious thought modes:


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Editor’s note: The PMWJ Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Gower and other publishers in the Routledge family.  Each month an introduction to the current article is provided by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Gower/Routledge Advances in Project Management series of books on new and emerging concepts in PM.  Prof Dalcher’s article is an introduction to the invited paper this month in the PMWJ. 

How to cite this paper: Dalcher, D. (2019). The return of the hacker: Rethinking projects, progress, innovation and teams, PM World Journal, Volume VIII, Issue VI, July.  Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/pmwj83-Jul2019-Dalcher-the-return-of-the-hacker.pdf



About the Author

Darren Dalcher, PhD

Author, Professor, Series Editor
Director, National Centre for Project Management
Lancaster University Management School, UK



 Darren Dalcher, Ph.D., HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI, SMIEEE, SFHEA is Professor in Strategic Project Management at Lancaster University, and founder and Director of the National Centre for Project Management (NCPM) in the UK.  He has been named by the Association for Project Management (APM) as one of the top 10 “movers and shapers” in project management and was voted Project Magazine’s “Academic of the Year” for his contribution in “integrating and weaving academic work with practice”. Following industrial and consultancy experience in managing IT projects, Professor Dalcher gained his PhD in Software Engineering from King’s College, University of London.

Professor Dalcher has written over 200 papers and book chapters on project management and software engineering. He is Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Software: Evolution and Process, a leading international software engineering journal. He is the editor of the book series, Advances in Project Management, published by Routledge and of the companion series Fundamentals of Project Management.  Heavily involved in a variety of research projects and subjects, Professor Dalcher has built a reputation as leader and innovator in the areas of practice-based education and reflection in project management. He works with many major industrial and commercial organisations and government bodies.

Darren is an Honorary Fellow of the APM, a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and the Royal Society of Arts, A Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the British Academy of Management. He is a Chartered IT Practitioner. He sits on numerous senior research and professional boards, including The PMI Academic Member Advisory Group, the APM Research Advisory Group, the CMI Academic Council and the APM Group Ethics and Standards Governance Board.  He is the Academic Advisor and Consulting Editor for the next APM Body of Knowledge. Prof Dalcher is an academic advisor for the PM World Journal.  He is the academic advisor and consulting editor for the forthcoming edition of the APM Body of Knowledge. He can be contacted at d.dalcher@lancaster.ac.uk.

To view other works by Prof Darren Dalcher, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/darren-dalcher/.