Brooks on the Second System Effect

This is such an important concept it is worth repeating here:

An architect’s first work is apt to be spare and clean. He knows he doesn’t know what he’s doing, so he does it carefully and with great restraint.

As he designs the first work, frill after frill and embellishment after embellishment occur to him. These get stored away to be used “next time.” Sooner or later the first system is finished, and the architect, with firm confidence and a demonstrated mastery of that class of systems, is ready to build a second system.

This second is the most dangerous system a man ever designs. When he does his third and later ones, his prior experiences will confirm each other as to the general characteristics of such systems, and their differences will identify those parts of his experience that are particular and not generalizable.

The general tendency is to over-design the second system, using all the ideas and frills that were cautiously sidetracked on the first one. The result, as Ovid says, is a “big pile.”

— Frederick P. Brooks, Jr.
The Mythical Man-Month

Brooks’ Mythical Man-Month is the definitive guide to managing complex engineering projects. While the subject is software, the stories and observations apply to all fields of modern technology. It is one of those books that a good manager should find himself reading every six months.

(Most people who dismiss this book as “not applying to me” are usually committing the very errors about which Brooks writes.)