Masterpiece Engineering -
A Spoof on Programming Management

Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

At the 1969 NATO Conference on Software Engineering Techniques there appeared a paper that did not get into the Proceedings. It was not deemed serious enough. But I kept it and published it (Honeywell Computer Journal, Vol. 8, Number 2, of 1974). The author is remembered as the creator of HASP (Houston Automatic Spooling Program) for IBM equipment. I published it anonymously then, but his name can be revealed now as T. H. Simpson of IBM.

Masterpiece Engineering

"You may be interested in an experience I had last night while trying to prepare some remarks for this address. I was walking outside in the garden attempting to organize my thoughts when I stumbled over a stone on the ground. To my surprise, as I picked myself up, I saw it had an inscription chiseled on it, and with some difficulty I deciphered it. It began 'Here on this spot in the year 1500 an international conference was held'. It seemed that a group of people had got together to discuss the problems posed by the number of masterpieces being fabricated throughout the world; at that time it was a very flourishing industry. They thought it would be appropriate to find out if this process could be scientificized, so they held an international working conference on masterpiece engineering to discuss the problem.

As I continued walking round the garden, now looking a little closer at the ground, I came across the bones of the group still in session attempting to write down the criteria for the design of the Mona Lisa. The sight reminded me strangely of our group working on the criteria for the design of an operating system.

Apparently the conference decided that it should establish an institute to work in more detail on production problems in the masterpiece field, so they went out into the streets of Rome and solicited a few chariot drivers, gladiators, and others, and put them through a five-week (half-day) course on masterpiece creation. Then they were all put into a large room and asked to begin creating.

They soon realized that they were not getting much efficiency out of the institute, so they set about equipping the masterpiece workers with some more efficient tools to help them create masterpieces. They invented power-driven chisels, automatic paint tube squeezers, and so on, but all this merely produced a loud outcry from the educators. 'All these techniques will give the painters sloppy characteristics', they said.

Production was still not reaching satisfactory levels, so they extended the range of masterpiece support techniques with some further steps. One idea was to take a single canvas and pass it rapidly from painter to painter. While one was applying the brush, the others had time to think. The next natural step to take was of course to double the number of painters, but before taking it they adopted a most interesting device. They decided to carry out some proper measurement of productivity. Two weeks at the institute were spent counting the number of brush strokes per day produced by one group of painters, and this criterion was then promptly applied in assessing the value to the enterprise of the rest. If a painter failed to turn in his 20 brush strokes per day, he was clearly underproductive. Regrettably, none of these advances in knowledge seemed to have any real impact upon masterpiece production and so at length the group decided that the basic difficulty was clearly a management problem. One of the brighter students (by the name of L. da Vinci) was immediately promoted to the manager of the project, putting him in charge of procuring paints, canvases, and brushes for the rest of the organization.

Well, for all I know the institute may be still in existence. I leave you with one thought: in a few hundred years somebody may unearth our tape recordings on this spot and find us equally ... [inaudible]."


You will have realized that this jab or jibe was, in 1969, 6 years prior to the release of Fred Brooks' "Mythical Man-Month" treatise. Both argued that hordes of programmers and management interference didn't create good software.

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