The Key to Good Design: 'Identify Your Scarcest Resource'

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Fred Brooks is a legend for his time at IBM and his book, The Mythical Man-Month, which became a Bible for software developers. The book identified the key concept that "you can't always speed up an overdue software project by adding more programmers; beyond a certain point, doing so increases delays," as Wired's Kevin Kelly explains in a new interview with Brooks.

Brooks, a University of North Carolina computer scientist, has a new book out, The Design of Design, in which he takes on a host of new fields. Across of all of them, he singles out one crosscutting idea: know your limiting factor.

The critical thing about the design process is to identify your scarcest resource. Despite what you may think, that very often is not money. For example, in a NASA moon shot, money is abundant but lightness is scarce; every ounce of weight requires tons of material below. On the design of a beach vacation home, the limitation may be your ocean-front footage. You have to make sure your whole team understands what scarce resource you're optimizing.

There is one other great moment in Kelly's interview with Brooks in which the latter reveals that someone (a real person! who is still alive!) had to make the decision to enable the use of lower-case letters in computing.

Kelly: What do you consider your greatest technological achievement?
Brooks: The most important single decision I ever made was to change the IBM 360 series from a 6-bit byte to an 8-bit byte, thereby enabling the use of lowercase letters. That change propagated everywhere.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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