Any religious movement based on the observation by local residents of the delivery of supplies by ship and aircraft to colonial officials. Cargo cults were observed chiefly in Melanesia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were characterized by the expectation of a new age of blessing and prosperity to be initiated by the arrival of a special “cargo” of goods from supernatural sources. Such beliefs may have expressed traditional millennial ideas, often revived by the teaching of Christian missions.
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Cargo cult programming can also refer to the results of (over-)applying a design principle blindly without understanding the reasons behind that design principle in the first place. An example would be a novice being taught that commenting code is good, and then adding comments for lines that are self-explanatory or need no comment; other examples involve overly complex use of design patterns or certain forms of coding style.
The term 'cargo cult', as an idiom, originally referred to aboriginal religions which grew up in the South Pacific after World War II. The practices of these groups centered on building elaborate mock-ups of airplanes and military landing strips in the hope of summoning the god-like airplanes that had brought marvelous cargo during the war. Use of the term in computer programming probably derives from Richard Feynman's characterization of certain practices as "cargo cult science".
McConnell describes software development organizations that attempt to emulate more successful development houses, either by slavishly following a software development process, or by taking a commitment oriented development approach.
In both cases, McConnell contends that competence ultimately determines whether a project succeeds or fails, regardless of the development approach taken; furthermore, he claims that incompetent "impostor organizations", that merely imitate the form of successful software development organizations are, in fact, engaging, in what he calls Cargo cult software engineering.