To inaugurate the “Reading Notes” series  I will take articles from the forthcoming International Conference on Software Engineering. Since I am not going to ICSE this year I am instead spending a little time browsing through the papers, obligingly available on the conference site. I’ll try whenever possible to describe a paper before it is presented at the conference, to alert readers to interesting sessions. I hope in July and August to be able to do the same for some of the papers to be presented at ESEC/FSE .
Please note the general disclaimer .
The Design of Bug Fixes  caught my attention partly for selfish reasons, since we are working, through the AutoFix project , on automatic bug fixing, but also out of sheer interest and because I have seen previous work by some of the authors. There have been article about bug patterns before, but not so much is known with credible empirical evidence about bug fixes (corrections of faults). When a programmer encounters a fault, what strategies does he use to correct it? Does he always produce the best fix he can, and if so, why not? What is the influence of the project phase on such decisions (e.g. will you fix a bug the same way early in the process and close to shipping)? These are some of the questions addressed by the paper.
The most interesting concrete result is a list of properties of bug fixes, classified along two criteria: nature of a fix (the paper calls it “design space”), and reasoning behind the choice of a fix. Here are a few examples of the “nature” classification:
- Data propagation: the bug arises in a component, fix it in another, for example a library class.
- More or less accuracy: are we fixing the symptom or the cause?
- Behavioral alternatives: rather than directly correcting the reported problem, change the user-experienced behavior (evoking the famous quip that “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature”). The authors were surprised to see that developers (belying their geek image) seem to devote a lot of effort trying to understand how users actually use the products, but also found that even so developers do not necessarily gain a solid, objective understanding of these usage patterns. It would be interesting to know if the picture is different for traditional locally-installed products and for cloud-based offerings, since in the latter case it is possible to gather more complete, accurate and timely usage data.
On the “reasoning” side, the issue is why and how programmers decide to adopt a particular approach. For example, bug fixes tend to be more audacious (implying redesign if appropriate) at the beginning of a project, and more conservative as delivery nears and everyone is scared of breaking something. Another object of the study is how deeply developers understand the cause rather than just the symptom; the paper reports that 18% “did not have time to figure out why the bug occurred“. Surprising or not, I don’t know, but scary! Yet another dimension is consistency: there is a tension between providing what might ideally be the best fix and remaining consistent with the design decisions that underlie a software system throughout its architecture.
I was more impressed by the individual categories of the classification than by that classification as a whole; some of the categories appear redundant (“interface breakage“, “data propagation” and “internal vs external“, for example, seem to be pretty much the same; ditto for “cause understanding” and “accuracy“). On the other hand the paper does not explicitly claim that the categories are orthogonal. If they turn this conference presentation into a journal article I am pretty sure they will rework the classification and make it more robust. It does not matter that it is a bit shaky at the moment since the main insights are in the individual kinds of fix and fix-reasoning uncovered by the study.
The authors are from Microsoft Research (one of them was visiting faculty) and interviewed numerous programmers from various Microsoft product groups to find out how they fix bugs.
The paper is nicely written and reads easily. It includes some audacious syntax, as in “this dimension” [internal vs external] “describes how much internal code is changed versus external code is changed as part of a fix“. It has a discreet amount of humor, some of which may escape non-US readers; for example the authors explain that when approaching programmers out of the blue for the survey they tried to reassure them through the words “we are from Microsoft Research, and we are here to help“, a wry reference to the celebrated comment by Ronald Reagan (or his speechwriter) that the most dangerous words in the English language are “I am from the government, and I am here to help“. To my taste the authors include too many details about the data collection process; I would have preferred the space to be used for a more detailed discussion of the findings on bug fixes. On the other hand we all know that papers to selective conferences are written for referees, not readers, and this amount of methodological detail was probably the minimum needed to get past the reviewers (by avoiding the typical criticism, for empirical software engineering research, that the sample is too small, the questions biased etc.). Thankfully, however, there is no pedantic discussion of statistical significance; the authors openly present the results as dependent on the particular population surveyed and on the interview technique. Still, these results seem generalizable in their basic form to a large subset of the industry. I hope their publication will spawn more detailed studies.
According to the ICSE program the paper will be presented on May 23 in the Debugging session, 13:30 to 15:30.
Notes and references
 This article review is part of the “Reading Notes” series. General disclaimer here.
 European Software Engineering Conference 2013, Saint Petersburg, Russia, 18-24 August, see here.
 Emerson Murphy-Hill, Thomas Zimmerman, Christian Bird and Nachiappan Nagapan: The Design of Bug Fixes, in ICSE 2013, available here.
 AutoFix project at ETH Zurich, see project page here.
 Ronald Reagan speech extract on YouTube.