Cargo cult engineering

Thursday 20 November 2003

First, a friend sends me this editorial about Cargo Cult Software Engineering. Then, Charles Miller writes about misimplementing stand-up meetings. Both are about following the form of a practice, and missing either its spirit or its underlying mechanisms, or both. In both cases, the celebrants don't achieve what they wanted. Richard Feynman explained cargo cults like this:

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head for headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas — he's the controller — and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land.

If you want to read more about actual cargo cults, here's an overview page and an anthropology presentation (with pictures of the artifacts).

» 3 reactions

Comments

[gravatar]
Jonathon Duerig 11:21 AM on 20 Nov 2003

Its great that you quote Richard Feynman's explanation of Cargo Cults. However, you forgot to mention who you are quoting.

-D

[gravatar]
Ned Batchelder 8:08 PM on 20 Nov 2003

Quite right! I've added an attribution.

[gravatar]
Fred Kiesche 11:15 AM on 21 Nov 2003

I added all the links you were citing to my blog. I recently had read the "Stand Up Meetings" post, and had come across a copy of Feynman's speech in the past few weeks--so your posting put it all together!

Great site--although I think the wooden puzzles would drive me to drink!

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