1. The bataan death march
  2. A software project typified by high risk, short staff, underfunding, short deadlines, and so on.
  3. A book about (2) by Edward Yourdon (Full title: Death March: The Complete Software Developer's Guide to Surviving 'Mission Impossible' Projects)

It's an endless stream of days where you work long hours, but you never feel like you've made any significant forward motion. You lose track of what day of the week it is. You don't talk to your friends for what turns out to be months. And for what?

n. a ride that turns into an investigation of your endurance limit. "The bridge was out, and I had to go all the way back the way I came. So the morning's nice, easy right turned into a Bataan death march.

From the Dictionary of Mountain Bike Slang

In his book Death March: The Complete Software Developer's Guide to Surviving "Mission Impossible" Projects, Edward Yourdon explains that "software development" death marches have two orthogonal characteristics:
  • the probability that the death march will end in success or failure

  • the morale of the folks who are on the death march
This classification system leads to four types1 of death marches:
  1. mission impossible (good chance of success and everybody is pumped)

    No doubt about it . . . if you're going to go on a death march project, this is the kind to be on. They are incredible team building experiences and you're likely to have excellent opportunities to do interesting things, learn new stuff and just generally have fun.

    Unfortunately, if you succeed then management will use the success as evidence that the naysayers were wrong (i.e. the next project is likely to be yet another death march) and the emotional letdown that occurs if you fail is "no fun at all".

  2. ugly (good chance of success but it will be achieved at a high people cost)

    These are the sorts of death march projects which literally consume people. Expect to see a trail of broken people and relationships scattered along the wayside of one of these experiences. This type of death march is frequently a quite literal life altering experience for participants. People can find themselves suddenly single again, embarking on a new career or living out of a cardboard box well before the end of one of these death marches.

    Participants in ugly death marches generally swear solemn oaths that they will NEVER do THAT again! Strangely (or not) enough, participants in the other kinds of death marches are much less likely to swear such oaths.

  3. kamikaze (poor chance of success but it will be GLORIOUS)

    The deadlines are insane, the budgets are a cruel joke and the pressure is out of this world but it doesn't matter because everyone knows that the honour of the team is at stake and NOBODY is going to let the team down.

    Like the mission impossible death marches, participants in a kamikaze death march can expect to make or reinforce long lasting friendships (forged in the fire of hell) and learn a lot about about themselves and their craft.

    Actually reaching the end of a kamikaze death march and discovering that you've succeeded can be a very strange feeling which is a strange mixture of the disappointment of not dying the warrior's death and the relief of having successfully defended "the homeland" from the barbarians.

    Some have used the term Klingon death marches to describe kamikaze death marches (for reasons which will be clear to any Star Trek fan).

  4. suicide (poor chance of success and everybody is unhappy)

    Trust me . . . you DO NOT want to be on one of these. Everyone from the project leader on down KNOWS that the "light at the end of the tunnel is the headlight of an oncoming train" but there just doesn't seem to be any way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat or to even run away and hide somewhere until it's all over.

    If there is an upside to this kind of death march, it's that if a miracle happens and you actually SUCCEED then the feeling of elation and relief far exceeds that felt upon the successful completion of any of the other kinds of death marches. Of course, you won't succeed and everybody knows it but it might be at least somewhat heartening to know that you'll really enjoy the feeling if you do.

1Yourdon quotes an e-mail at the end of the chapter that discusses these death march types (chapter 2). The e-mail describes a fifth type of death march which the e-mail's author calls the lost squadron death march. Such a death march unfolds (unravels?) through an apparently never ending series of changes to the project's requirements. Participants have simply lost track of where they're trying to get to so they spend their days mostly just wandering around in the wilderness.

Although in some respects these are suicide death marches (i.e. zero chance of success and everybody knows it), the two kinds of death marches are arguably fundamentally different. Many of the participants in a suicide death march may just give up and start coasting but, unlike in a lost squadron death march where essentially everybody has lost track of what the goals are and is just "going through the motions", a significant number of the participants in a suicide death march will continue working toward the project's goals right to the bitter end.

This w/u is presented with all due respect to the victims of real life death marches. Nothing you'll ever experience in the worst technical development project imaginable is even remotely comparable to what the victims of the Bataan Death March and other real life death marches went through (roughly 20,000 people died over a period of ten or so days during the Bataan Death March).


  • The book Death March: The Complete Software Developer's Guide to Surviving "Mission Impossible" Projects by Edward Yourdon, published by Prentice Hall PTR, © 1997 by Prentice Hall PTR, 218 pages, ISBN 0-13-748310-4.

  • personal experiences of the author of this writeup - a proud(?) veteran of all five kinds of death marches (although he had the sense to bail out fairly quickly on his only lost squadron death march).

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