You Have to Feed and Water the Horses

Some years ago, my labmate at Stanford asserted that I would not be able to stay up for 72 consecutive hours to meet an impending tapeout deadline. Never one to back down from a challenge, I consumed enough caffeine to kill an ox and had two of the most productive days of my graduate career.

By the 60th hour, my brain had turned to putty. Too useless to work, I spent the next half-dozen hours playing backgammon against myself and losing. I called it quits five hours before the goal.

Physically, I could have done it. Emotionally, I didn’t care anymore.

A few years prior to this stupid exercise, Fred Brooks was the keynote speaker at the ASYNC 2003 conference at UBC Vancouver. The title of his address was “Project Lessons Learned the Hard Way.” I don’t remember what he said because I was busy playing Snake on my brand-new Nokia 3120, but he ended the talk with “Remember to feed and water the horses.”


A project team is a workhorse. It likes to stretch its legs and undergo regular bouts of stress so that it can become stronger. But beat the crap out of it for too long without rest or recovery, and it will become injured and useless and lose its will to live.

I messed up this past week. I told the design team that no one was going home until the new front end was built out. It was only 48 hours’ worth of work, I estimated. Should have been easy.

But as the hours wore on, the developers became tired and cranky and unfocused. The end-product was suboptimal. You don’t get good results when you make people work at gunpoint.

And that is why you must feed and water the horses.

elaine horses


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