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|Terrorists and the Mythical Man Month|
May. 22nd, 2009 at 7:35 pm
During this recent Obama/Cheny smackdown (in fact, let’s just put the two in a UFC ring and get it over with), I was thinking about the argument that our policies are creating more terrorists than we are killing or capturing. I have no idea how to approach answering that question, but it made me think of a more important fallacy embedded in that claim.
I have many years of experience in the software industry, and whenever we’d start planning a new version of our software the program managers would come up with these estimates of time and costs. They would say something like, “60 hours of user interface, 100 hours of back end work, 50 hours of testing & bug fixes.” These were often attached to specific features we were trying to implement, and then the other departments could use this information to determine what features to include or eliminate from the next release.
There were many flaws with this, but probably the biggest problem is skills and people are not interchangeable. Some are better UI programmers, others are better at architecture or database design. There is a significant amount of art involved in writing code, and vast differences in productivity and talent between programmers of the same skill.
When you plan a project with man hours, you are assuming that people are like a production process. In a regular factory, you can increase production by throwing up more assembly lines and increasing raw materials. So the program managers assume that if you’ll also increase production of quality software code. Makes sense, right?
It nevery works that way, however. In fact, throwing more people at a project, especially after it’s well underway, can only lengthen the development process. No matter how talented the newcomers are (and they usually aren’t as talented as the people already on it), they’re still not very familiar with the project at hand, and the effort to get all these new programmers up to speed pulls the productive programmers away from writing code into this training and communication. The result is an increase in time and cost. All this is well documented in Fred Brooks’ seminal The Mythical Man-Month.
If we view the production of terrorism as large corporation like Apple Computers, with a globalized supply and distribution chain, then certain arguments begin to look very simplistic, even foolish. There are certain parts of that chain that are more vulnerable to disruption than others. And just because you have a large amount of inputs doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily turn that into a lot of product, or that you will be able to sell that additional product.
And think of the personnel requirements. Each part of the supply, production, delivery, and sales chain has to be tended by experienced, specialized, and talented individuals. That is as true for the “product” of terrorism as it is for iPods. The average Genius Bar tech would not have the skills to make an effective CEO, and the opposite in this case is also certainly true, given Steve Jobs’ legendary impatience and quick temper. And neither of them has the skills to write and debug software.
Yet so much of the discussion of terrorism acts like a terrorist is a terrorist, and the more of them you have, the more terrorism you get. No. The production of terror has its own supply chain, supply/demand curve, and it requires specialized talent and effective organization to capture and deliver that product. Just because there are 5,000 more screaming hordes of Islamic fundamentalists frothing with rage doesn’t necessarily mean we are less safe, if we have effectively degraded the delivery and training mechanism, or suppressed demand for the product.
It takes quite a bit more than a gift for burning flags and spouting anti-American slogans to make a dangerous terrorist. True, some fools blunder into creating mayhem, and Richard Reid, an obviously dim bulb, almost did. But even in that case, someone had to equip him with explosive-laden shoes, book his flights, choose the targets, etc. It takes a lot of people doing their jobs to pull off a terrorist attack successfully. Operational planning, intel gathering, insertion, supply, finance, communication, psy ops, are all very challenging and demand specialized experience. Just like software programming, they are more art than science. Some people, like Osama bin Laden and his evil doctor sidekick Ayman Zawahiri clearly have the flair for putting this globalized supply chain together. But many others do not. The average Islamic Rage Boy, for all his zeal, almost certainly does not have the same abilities.
The point is an effective anti-terrorism policy cannot be solely or even primarily about body counts, and even less useful are opinion polls about American popularity. You attack each part of that chain in a different way, deploying your own specialized personnel. A very small pressure point in the right place can do great damage. You kill the leader of the cell, and he is replaced. Then you kill him, and he is replaced. You don’t have to do this very long before the quality of leadership has become very poor. This is because the pool of effective leaders is only so big, but also because you have dramatically changed the incentive structure for taking the job. Someone has got to be able to exploit that pent-up demand for terrorism that presumably is present in anti-American sentiment, just like someone had to figure out how to capture the pent-up demand for tiny music players. This isn’t something that many people can do.
If it were as simple as boneheaded American foreign policy, failed statehood, and grinding poverty were the sole determinants of terrorism, then we should invade Haiti and pull out of of Afghanistan. If you can kill, capture, or neutralize the right people, you can cripple a terror network even if there are lots of eager and willing recruits.
In a way, the “we’re creating more terrorists than we’re killing” argument is even more facile than the mythical man-month, because a program manager at a software company might make the mistake of adding a few more developers in hopes of speeding up a project, but he’d never be so foolish as to think it wouldn’t make a difference if you replaced your lead Oracle database developer with the summer marketing intern.