Book Review: The Deadline

Project management is an underrepresented genre in fiction. That it even exists is probably no small surprise to many, and probably of interest to even fewer. There is very little about project management that the average reader would find sexy or thrilling. Fortunately, Tom DeMarco makes no attempts at either (despite the occasional hint of a romantic undercurrent).

I wasn’t sure what to expect when my professor mentioned this book in class recently — perhaps a dashing project manager who sweeps through saving the day and buckling swashes at every opportunity. Instead, the reader is given Webster Tompkins, a competent and entirely normal project manager with years of experience and a looming layoff (or, in the words of Mr. Tompkins’ barely fictitious employer: “Released to Seek Opportunities Elsewhere”). While dozing in the back of an assembly, Tompkins is whisked off to the former Soviet state of Morovia. The Noble National Leader plans to turn his small country into the world leader in shrink-wrapped software, and Tompkins is just the man to lead the way.

What sets The Deadline apart as a novel is its entirely unconcealed intention to be a learning tool. The plot, exaggerated conditions and all, serves as a framework to present critical project management wisdom. Conveniently, Tompkins keeps a journal in which is writes these lessons as they occur, condensing the knowledge into bite-sized nuggets. What sets The Deadline apart as a learning tool is its readability. Although this book could readily be used in a formal project management course, it is interesting and well-written. Unlike the dialogue in project management scenarios given in textbooks (which, with apologies to Brewer and Dittman, is lousy), The Deadline reads like actual conversations had been transcribed. The end result is an informative and entertaining read that goes by far too quickly.

Perhaps the most striking thing about DeMarco’s novel is the publication date: 1997. At no time during my reading did I find myself thinking “boy, I’m sure glad that problem is solved now.” Although the nature of IT has changed in the decade and a half since The Deadline was written, the lessons are still very applicable. Especially when it comes to managing the human resources, it seems the lessons are still being relearned by each successive generation of managers (or sometimes not). Being a systems engineer and not a developer may slant my view of the current state, and it is entirely likely that software development managers have absorbed these lessons better. Until then, this book should required reading for every IT manager, project manager or otherwise.

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