Born in Durham, North Carolina, he attended Duke University, graduating in 1953, and he received a Ph.D in Applied Mathematics (Computer Science) from Harvard University in 1956. Howard Aiken was his advisor.
Brooks joined IBM in 1956, working in Poughkeepsie and Yorktown, New York. He worked on the architecture of the Stretch (a $10m scientific supercomputer for the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory) and Harvest computers and then was manager for the development of the System/360 family of computers and the OS/360 software they ran.
Brooks later wrote of the development process for OS/360 in The Mythical Man-Month. He is also famous for his essay on software engineering called "No Silver Bullet."
In 1965, Brooks left IBM to found the Department of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and chaired it for 20 years. As of 2003 he was still engaged in active research there, primarily in virtual worldss and molecular graphics.