Brooks Law & Open Source: Is Community-Driven Software Doomed?

Accepted Session
Short Form
Scheduled: Tuesday, June 21, 2016 from 10:00 – 10:45am in B301


One measure of health in open source projects is a growing contributor community. In 1975, Fred Brooks published The Mythical Man-Month, in which he noted that adding manpower to projects slows the release of software. If Brooks’ Law holds true, are growing open source projects doomed to fail? Or can we reconcile the ideas that more contributors are both beneficial and detrimental?


In 1975, Fred Brooks published The Mythical Man-Month, a book of observations and recommendations for software project management and team collaboration. One of the most enduring statements from the book, known as Brooks’ Law, states that “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.” Brooks explains that productivity from additional developers is bound by limits imposed from ramp up time and limited divisibility of tasks. But worse, he notes that the communications overhead of adding more contributors outweighs their useful contributions, resulting in a net loss of productivity.

Open source software projects are often measured by the growth of their contributor communities – a continuously growing number of contributors is taken as a sign of health and success. While most open source projects don’t have firm release schedules, delays in releasing updates and new functionality can slow the project’s adoption and use. If adding more contributors works against timely releases, then should we be less inclusive of new contributors? As open source communities grow, will they reach a point where all Pull Requests are derailed by bike shedding and forward progress comes to a painful halt?

I’ll discuss some of the potential loopholes we can use to work around Brooks’ Law and propose some considerations for ways open source communities might be able to escape it altogether. If Open Source, community-driven software is the future, we need to deeply examine how we’re managing our software delivery in relation to our software contributors.


community, contributors

Speaking experience

OSCON+Velocity Amsterdam 2015 Ignite:
DrupalCon Amsterdam:


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