Time-traveling back to the 1995 software development industry


Remember the heady days of 1995? Toy Story was released, Jagged Little Pill was the album of the year, The Grateful Dead disbanded, this time for good.

For the tech industry, eBay was founded (“an online flea market”), and Windows 95, Java 1.0, and JavaScript (no relation) were all released.

There was also a book published, Software Runaways, that dealt with the complexities and difficulties of modern software development projects, by looking at case studies of massive failures.

The author, Robert L. Glass, gathered some of the best anecdotes and case studies available in 1995, and turned them into a great snap-shot of the technology industry at the time.

There are some great quotes, for example, this from a July 1995 USAir Magazine interview with Bill Gates:

“Frankly, one of the challenges facing Microsoft is that many of its employees have not suffered much failure yet. Quite a few have never been involved with a project that didn’t succeed. As a result, success may be taken for granted, which is dangerous…When you’re failing, you’re forced to be creative, to dig deep and think hard, night and day. Every company needs people who have been through that.

Glass takes a broad look at failed projects including Denver International Airport’s baggage handling system, the IRS, the Florida Welfare system as well as many private corporation examples.

Part of the reason for these failures is the nature of software itself. “It is equal parts psychological and technical. Software is both a source of amusement and engineering achievement. It is easy to change, to the point of whimsy, and it allows us to do things heretofore unthinkable. It is contradictory and miraculous.” he writes.

Glass references a seminal paper from KPMG, “Runaway projects – Causes and Effects”, Software World, Vol.26, No.3, 1995 by Andy Cole. The paper shows the respondents’ highest rated causes of failure:

  1. Project objectives not fully specified
  2. Bad planning and estimating
  3. Technology new to the organisation
  4. Inadequate/no project management
  5. Insufficient senior staff on the team
  6. Poor performance by suppliers

At a glance, how many of these causes do you think are still relevant today — even after two decades of project management development and growth and expertise?

“The strongest theme,” Glass writes, “running across both the in-progress remedies and the long-term remedies, is better project management. ” He justifies this by saying “there seems to be a very strong belief among these companies that project management is, and will continue to be, the prime cause of software runaways until something is done about it.”

My favourite quote referenced in the book though, is Hofstadter’s Law:

“Software development always takes longer than you think, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”

Perhaps we need a universal law for project management?


  1. The more things change, the more they stay the same….Well in theory that is. I’m sure someone will understand what I mean by this.

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