|publisher||Quadrangle / The New York Times Book Company (1977)|
|summary||"A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works." Years ago, I saw this quote and committed it to memory. I've finally had the pleasure of reading the book it comes from. I was amazed that Systemantics was written in 1977. It's far more relevant today than it was then, because more people write more software today.|
That means theories like
Systems in general work poorly or not at all.
Some might question whether this is really true for computer systems built with modern technology. After all, for a computer to function, millions of microscopic parts must act in perfect synchronicity at superhuman speed.
But in reality, computers fail much more frequently than we notice. A large chunk of their innards are dedicated to failing gracefully. There's ecc in just about every piece of hardware. Without it, computer hardware would fail too often to be usable. Software is no different--it can fail sooner or later, gracefully or catastrophically, but it's going to fail. Overall, computers work poorly, but they work.Complex systems usually operate in failure mode.
In other words, something's always broken at any point in time. The measure of a complex system's quality is how drastically a particular failure impacts the rest of the system.
Loose systems last longer and work better.
Most Slashdot readers probably read the above and think either "Hallelujah!" or "Duh." But it's a small example of something I liked a lot about Systemantics. Buried under several layers of satire and pessimism is a genuine desire to help the reader avoid the mistakes of past systems designers and managers. There's more to this book than just pessimism.
What's Bad:Systemantics suffers a little from being a quarter-century old. Several references to Watergate and a few other cultural nods may be a bit lost on anyone under 40.
But the book's only real flaw is the author's occasional condescending tone. Every dozen pages or so, Gall takes the opportunity to criticize a real-world example. Some of these anecdotes serve as supporting evidence for an argument. Others are genuinely entertaining (the section on Job Goals and and Objectives is outstanding). But the author sometimes tries too hard to be satirical, and comes across as flat or patronizing, or departs on tangents unrelated to the book's central ideas.
Summary:Despite small imperfections, there's a wealth of real knowledge in this small volume. The author helpfully outlines the main points at the book's end (some of which I've bulleted above). The book's overall message couldn't be more clear if it summarized itself. Which it nicely does:
Systems are seductive. They promise to do a hard job faster, better, and more easily than you could do it by yourself. But if you set up a system, you are likely to find your time and effort now being consumed in the care and feeding of the system itself.It is hardly necessary to state that the very first principle of Systems design is a negative one: Do it without a system if you can.
- New problems are created by its very presence.
- Once set up, it won't go away, it grows and encroaches.
- It begins to do strange and wonderful things.
- It breaks down in ways you never thought possible.
- It kicks back, gets in the way, and opposes its own proper function.
- Your own perspective becomes distorted by being in the system.
- You become anxious and push on it to make it work.
You can find used copies of Systemantics from bn.com and other online sources, though good-condition copies fetch high prices. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to submit a review for consideration, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.