Fred Brooks, Jr.

(Photo by Jerry Markatos)

Turing Award winner Frederick P. Brooks Jr., Ph.D. ’56, who studied under Harvard faculty member Howard Aiken, the inventor of the Mark I series of computers, is celebrated as one of the chief architects of modern computing; having coined the term computer architecture doesn’t hurt.

While at IBM he developed the System/360 family of computers and its operating system, the models for modern machines today. Users can even thank the master builder for smaller favors: He introduced the lowercase alphabet to word processing.

Brooks is likely best known for writing a computing classic, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering. Reviewer Jason Bennett's review for Slashdot hints at the amazing staying power of the 1975 work:

What's bad about this book is that people don't read it. There's no particularly good reason, they just are too busy reading the latest book on today's fad. The irony, of course, is that today's fad will be laughed at next year, while MMM will still be around a decade from now. If you were assigned this book in school, read it again (you probably didn't the first time :-). If you've never heard of it, read it tomorrow.

Brooks, who founded the Computer Science Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the place where he still holds an active academic appointment, continues to make strides today, having just recently published The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist.

What was working with Howard Aiken like?

Aiken was a great dissertation advisor. He suggested good topics, gave a lot of encouragement, and held us to a high standard. Most impressively, he would appear in one's office every day he was in town and want to read the latest prose. And there better be some.

As a consequence, most of his students finished in three years. Although he was autocratic in many matters, every inch the Commander or the Boss (after the war), he allowed wide latitude in dissertation work: "It's your dissertation, treat that [subtopic] as you see fit."

Did you have any sense of what computation would mean in the long-run?

We knew it was going to be vital for both science and commerce. Aiken started some of the very first work on the application of computers to business jobs such as utility billing, banking, airline reservations, and payroll (my dissertation topic.) In the '50s we never envisioned personal computing, nor 100's of millions produced per year, much less the Internet.

You founded the University of North Carolina's computer science department. In the past several years, there’s been a steep decline in the number of undergraduate and graduate students enrolling in the field. A parallel and ongoing struggle has been to attract more women and minorities. Any thoughts on the decline?

The dot-com bust was mostly responsible, I think.

Many parents were over-reacting to that and to off-shoring. Computer science is still a fine discipline, with many rich career opportunities. Most math and engineering fields have trouble attracting women and minorities. It is important to make the effort to attract them, but we shouldn't be surprised that most choose other less mathematical fields.

The trouble goes back to middle and high school and the loss of students to advanced math and physics courses there.

What does it mean to teach computer science today? Is it a field or a tool? More broadly, what role should a university play in computation?

The Quotable Fred Brooks, Jr.

"The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff.

"He builds castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures.

"Yet the program construct, unlike the poet's words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separate from the construct itself. It prints results, draws pictures, produces sounds, moves arms.

"The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be....

"The computer resembles the magic of legend in this respect, too. If one character, one pause, of the incantation is not strictly in proper form, the magic doesn't work. Human beings are not accustomed to being perfect, an few areas of human activity demand it.

"Adjusting to the requirement for perfection is, I think, the most difficult part of learning to program."

From The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, Anniversary Edition

Computer science remains one of the most exciting and rapidly advancing fields of engineering. It is rewarding to teach it and yet demanding, because it is very difficult to keep up with even a subfield.

Harvard, Carolina, and any other university with ambitions in science and engineering, including biology, must teach computational science, and really needs to teach computer science as well.

What do you think about advances in consumer software over the past few decades?

Other than the web browser (which is a graphical version of a gopher used when 1200 baud was a big deal) and the search engine, software doesn’t look that much different than it did two decades ago.

Word XP doesn’t do much more than AppleWorks, the first word processing program I used on a machine with a 1MHz 6502 processor, did.

In other words, while computing has become more ubiquitous and device-oriented (like iPods), the way we interact with it (mainly through a keyboard and mouse) hasn’t changed that much. I do not, for example, have a virtual agent on my desktop reading my e-mail to me. Affective computing is merely a nice idea rather than a reality.

What do you think of the open source software movement? Is that the right development environment for the future?

For some projects, yes. For others, no. This is surely not the way to build a new air-traffic control system.

Will it help programmers avoid the ‘man-month’ syndrome?

No, that syndrome arises from the necessary communication among teams. Open source requires more and more difficult communication (because among people who don't know each other).

Is there a killer-app somewhere around the corner that will push software or hardware to the next level?

If so, I don't see it. But then, I didn't see having billions of pages of the world's knowledge at my fingertips, or an efficient national market in used books and all kinds of other goods.

A few years ago Don Norman predicted the ‘invisible computer’ would become commonplace. With cell phones, MP3 players, PDAs, it is very much visible. Has computation liberated us or tethered us?

It has empowered us in ways we hardly realize. I don't think computation per se has tethered us at all. But the incredible advances in communication most surely have.

How do you spend your time away from the machines?  

Reading (mostly Christian authors), interacting with children and grandchildren, helping a local Christian school advance to include high school, and maintaining our beach house.