Sunday, November 23, 2008

Small is Beautiful

Computers are getting faster and more powerful all the time, yet whilst the average mobile phone as more processing power then all the computers NASA used to put man on the moon combined (well I'm not sure whether this is true, but if it is it wouldn't surprise me:)), our software of today is still no better then Doug Englebarts in the 1950's.

So why are us programmers having such an hard time keeping up with the hardware? The root of the problem is complexity. Whilst hardware has got much faster, it still performs a small number of very simple things like ' load', 'add', 'subtract', 'accumulate', 'shift', 'store', etc. It is the sequence in which these simple things are performed and the speed at which they are executed that gives the illusion of the computer being clever. In actual fact the computer isn't clever at all, the clever part is arranging these simple instructions into a useful sequence, and this is where programmers come in.

So programmers are the clever ones. Yes, but our cleverness is finite. Evolution works at a very slow pace and cannot be expected to keep up with Moores law :) So how can we expect to utilise ever more powerful computers if our brains just can't keep up? Well the starting point is realising that people are indeed the weakest link. Our cognitive abilities are finite and we need to organise our programming activities in such a way to best exploit our inherent strengths and respect our limits as human beings. This leads naturally to the subject of programming language design, but I'm not going to go there today.

No what I want to speak about is chunking and the magical number 7 plus or minus two. The way the theory goes is that us as human-beings can hold around 7 +/- 2 things in our brains at one time. Once the number of parts in a system become larger then this, then we are well advised to abstract and create hierarchies of things, ensuring that the 7 +/- 2 cognitive limit at any given level in our hierarchy is observed.

Anyway, back to software, 7 +/- 2 doesn't only apply to the organisation of computer programs, it also applies to teams. Small software teams tend to be able to adapt to changing requirements in away that large teams just can't. As a strong believer in Agile development and Emergent Design, this ability to turn on a sixpence is invaluable to me, and I tend to avoid large teams.

Experience has proven to me, that when it comes to software development that small is beautiful. After proclaiming this for many a year I have finally stumbled on the original paper that explains the theoretical underpinnings of this point of view:

The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information
by George A. Miller.


1 comment:

Yardena said...