Advice projects must not ignore (but often do) . . .
A Must for the Project Manager
(and his or her boss)
Tom DeMarco & Tim Lister:
Waltzing with Bears -- Managing Risk on Software Projects
2003, Dorset House, ISBN 0-932633-60-9, 196 pages
reviewed by Conrad Weisert, June, 2003, ©Information Disciplines, Inc.
Scope is broader than title indicates
The misleading subtitle may lead some prospective buyers to assume that
this book has a narrower scope than it really has. In particular:
- It is about system development projects in general, not
just "software projects". Much of the excellent advice
applies just as much to projects that purchase and install packaged
application software products as to projects that develop custom software.
This is especially important in today's environment, where the
most popular fad methodologies, such as
extreme programming and the "Unified
don't support such projects at all.
- "Risk" is not something separate from planning and estimating.
Although the authors emphasize risk factors, the book offers
practical general guidance on realistic project planning and estimating.
Political and organizational obstacles
The central point of Waltzing with Bears is the unending struggle
between rational project estimating and management by wishful thinking.
This struggle has been explored many times before in books,
articles, and courses, including:
Nevertheless, project managers under pressure continue to capitulate and
tell their boss what he wants to hear. There is always something special
about this project, but we'll surely do the next project right.
(I've watched some organizations go for several years without
undertaking a normal project!)
Now one more enlighened voice gives support to the poor project planner.
DeMarco and Lister's examples and anecdotes are both entertaining and
A minor quibble:
In today's milieu of international applications and worldwide trade,
authors ought to avoid Americanisms that will baffle or irritate readers
whose first language is not English or who are unaquainted with U.S.
culture. Unfortunately, DeMarco and Lister have liberally sprinkled their
text with slang expressions, non-existent words, and
obsolete2 English units of measure.
If I were to use Waltzing with Bears as a text for a course
in another country, I would have to provide explanatory notes.
I wouldn't mind that, if there were some trade-off, some clear advantage
for a U.S. audience, but there isn't. Nothing at all would have been lost
if the authors had used plain English instead of, for example,
(p. 9), "daisy chain" (p. 25), "hairy edge" (p. 31),
"gotta", and "gonna"4 (p. 147).
I myself was bewildered by "mojo" (p. 116), a word I was
unacquainted with. After consulting the publisher and some dictionaries
newer than mine, I concede that it's a legitimate, though recent, English
word meaning "charm" or "magic spell", but it's still
unclear how it contributes to the authors' point,
What ever happened to the system development life-cycle?
The authors avoid confronting issues about project phases. In fact
the word doesn't even appear in the index. That's surprising, since a
fundamental purpose of the phased life-cycle concept is to limit risk.
On the other hand that may be a sensible choice,
given the controversies raging not only about specific life-cycle
methodologies but even about the very concept of the phase-limited
commitment. The reader may miss the context that many project
planners like to lean on. It's as if we expect do the entire project in
a single phase.
Waltzing with Bears, therefore, must be considered another adjunct
to project-management methodology rather than a source of stand-alone
If the book has a weak point it's Chapter 16, "Incrementalism for
Risk Mitigation". The arguments there are unconvincing and the
discussion seems unrelated to the rest of the book.
Appendix A is a reprint of part 1 of William Klingdon Clifford's 1876 paper
"The Ethics of Belief", still relevant reading for managers.
An 8-page bibliography directs the reader to some useful references, including
the 1997 IEEE software special issue on "managing risk".
1 -- A system development life-cycle descended from
Ivar Jacobson's "Objectory"
2 -- Obsolete for most of world, including now
3 -- Basketball may be an international game, but
not everyone is a fan. (I asked 8 acquaintances (1 Russian, 2 Indian,
1 British, 5 American) to explain the term. Two of them had no idea.)
4 -- Like the now-ubiquitous "wanna"
these words were not listed in reputable 1970 dictionaries. More
recent dictionaries identify them as "non-standard" or
"colloq., esp U.S.". The respected brand new Cambridge
Advanced Learning Dictionary continues to ignore them, as do
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