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Iterative and Incremental Development: A Brief History
Although many view iterative and incremental development as a modern practice, its application dates as far back as the mid-1950s. Prominent software-engineering thought leaders from each succeeding decade supported IID practices, and many large projects used them successfully.

Craig Larman

Victor R. Basili
University of Maryland


s agile methods become more popular, some view iterative, evolutionary, and incremental software development—a cornerstone of these methods—as the “modern” replacement of the waterfall model, but its practiced and published roots go back decades. Of course, many software-engineering students are aware of this, yet surprisingly, some commercial and government organizations still are not. This description of projects and individual contributions provides compelling evidence of iterative and incremental development’s (IID’s) long existence. Many examples come from the 1970s and 1980s—the most active but least known part of IID’s history. We are mindful that the idea of IID came independently from countless unnamed projects and the contributions of thousands and that this list is merely representative. We do not mean this article to diminish the unsung importance of other IID contributors. We chose a chronology of IID projects and approaches rather than a deep comparative analysis. The methods varied in such aspects as iteration length and the use of time boxing. Some attempted significant up-front specification work followed by incremental time-boxed development, while others were more classically evolutionary and feedback driven. Despite their differences, however, all the approaches had a common theme—to avoid a single-pass sequential, document-driven, gated-step approach. Finally, a note about our terminology: Although some prefer to reserve the phrase “iterative devel-

opment” merely for rework, in modern agile methods the term implies not just revisiting work, but also evolutionary advancement—a usage that dates from at least 1968.

IID grew from the 1930s work of Walter Shewhart,1 a quality expert at Bell Labs who proposed a series of short “plan-do-study-act” (PDSA) cycles for quality improvement. Starting in the 1940s, quality guru W. Edwards Deming began vigorously promoting PDSA, which he later described in 1982 in Out of the Crisis.2 Tom Gilb3 and Richard Zultner4 also explored PDSA application to software development in later works. The X-15 hypersonic jet was a milestone 1950s project applying IID,5 and the practice was considered a major contribution to the X-15’s success. Although the X-15 was not a software project, it is noteworthy because some personnel—and hence, IID experience—seeded NASA’s early 1960s Project Mercury, which did apply IID in software. In addition, some Project Mercury personnel seeded the IBM Federal Systems Division (FSD), another early IID proponent. Project Mercury ran with very short (half-day) iterations that were time boxed. The development team conducted a technical review of all changes, and, interestingly, applied the Extreme Programming practice of test-first development, planning and writing tests before each micro-increment. They also practiced top-down development with stubs. June 2003

0018-9162/03/$17.00 © 2003 IEEE

Published by the IEEE Computer Society


“We were doing incremental development as early as 1957, in Los Angeles, under the direction of Bernie Dimsdale [at IBM’s Service Bureau Corporation].”

The recollections of Gerald M. Weinberg, who worked on the project, provide a window into some practices during this period. In a personal communication, he wrote: We were doing incremental development as early as 1957, in Los Angeles, under the direction of Bernie Dimsdale [at IBM’s Service Bureau Corporation]. He was a colleague of John von Neumann, so perhaps he learned it there, or assumed it as totally natural. I do...
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