Archive for June 2011

Agile methods: the good, the bad and the ugly

It was a bit imprudent last Monday to announce the continuation of the SCOOP discussion for this week; with the TOOLS conference happening now, with many satellite events such as the Eiffel Design Feast of the past week-end and today’s “New Eiffel Technology Community” workshop, there is not enough time for a full article. Next week might also be problematic. The SCOOP series will resume, but in the meantime I will report on other matters.

As something that can be conveniently typed in while sitting in the back of the TOOLS room during fascinating presentations, here is a bit of publicity for the next round of one-day seminars for industry — “Compact Course” is the official terminology — that I will be teaching at ETH in Zurich next November (one in October), some of them with colleagues. It’s the most extensive session that we have ever done; you can see the full programs and registration information here.

  • Software Engineering for Outsourced and Distributed Development, 27 October 2011
    Taught with Peter Kolb and Martin Nordio
  • Requirements Engineering, 17 November
  • Software Testing and Verification: state of the art, 18 November
    With Carlo Furia and Sebastian Nanz
  • Agile Methods: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 23 November
  • Concepts and Constructs of Concurrent Computation, 24 November
    With Sebastian Nanz
  • Design by Contract, 25 November

The agile methods course is new; its summary reads almost like a little blog article, so here it is.

Agile methods: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Agile methods are wonderful. They’ll give you software in no time at all, turn your customers and users into friends, catch bugs before they catch you, change the world, and boost your love life. Do you believe these claims (even excluding the last two)? It’s really difficult to form an informed opinion, since most of the presentations of eXtreme Programming and other agile practices are intended to promote them (and the consultants to whom they provide a living), not to deliver an objective assessment.

If you are looking for a guru-style initiation to the agile religion, this is not the course for you. What it does is to describe in detail the corpus of techniques covered by the “agile” umbrella (so that you can apply them effectively to your developments), and assess their contribution to software engineering. It is neither “for” nor “against” agile methods but fundamentally descriptive, pedagogical, objective and practical. The truth is that agile methods include some demonstrably good ideas along with some whose benefits are at best dubious. In addition (and this should not be a surprise) they cannot make the fundamental laws of software engineering go away.

Agile methods have now been around for more than a decade, during which many research teams, applying proven methods of experimental science, have performed credible empirical studies of how well the methods really work and how they compare to more traditional software engineering practices. This important body of research results, although not widely known, is critical to managers and developers in industry for deciding whether and how to use agile development. The course surveys these results, emphasizing the ones most directly relevant to practitioners.

A short discussion session will enable participants with experience in agile methods to share their results.

Taking this course will give you a strong understanding of agile development, and a clear view of when, where and how to apply them.


Morning session: A presentation of agile methods

  • eXtreme Programming, pair programming, Scrum, Test-Driven Development, continuous integration, refactoring, stakeholder involvement, feature-driven development etc.
  • The agile lifecycle.
  • Variants: lean programming etc.

Afternoon session (I): Assessment of agile methods

  • The empirical software engineering literature: review of available studies. Assessment of their value. Principles of empirical software engineering.
  • Agile methods under the scrutiny of empirical research: what helps, what harms, and what has no effect? How do agile methods fare against traditional techniques?
  • Examples: pair programming versus code reviews; tests versus specifications; iterative development versus “Big Upfront Everything”.

Afternoon session (II): Discussion and conclusion

This final part of the course will present, after a discussion session involving participants with experience in agile methods, a summary of the contribution of agile methods to software engineering.

It will conclude with advice for organizations involved in software development and interested in applying agile methods in their own environment.

Target groups

CIOs; software project leaders; software developers; software testers and QA engineers.

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Concurrent programming is easy

EiffelStudio 6.8, released last month, contains the first official implementation of the SCOOP programming model for concurrent programming. This is an important milestone; let me try to explain why.

Concurrency challenging us

Concurrency is the principal stumbling block in the progress of programming. Do not take just my word for it:

  • Intel: “Multi-core processing is taking the industry on a fast-moving and exciting ride into profoundly new territory. The defining paradigm in computing performance has shifted inexorably from raw clock speed to parallel operations and energy efficiency” [1].
  • Rick Rashid (head of Microsoft Research):  “Multicore processors represent one of the largest technology transitions in the computing industry today, with deep implications for how we develop software.” [2].
  • Bill Gates: “Multicore: This is the one which will have the biggest impact on us. We have never had a problem to solve like this. A breakthrough is needed in how applications are done on multicore devices.” [3]
  • David Patterson: “Industry has basically thrown a Hail Mary. The whole industry is betting on parallel computing. They’ve thrown it, but the big problem is catching it.” [4]
  • Gordon Bell: “I’m skeptical until I see something that gives me some hope…  the machines are here and we haven’t got it right.” [4].

What has happened? Concurrency  used to be a highly specialized domain of interest to a small minority of programmers building operating systems and networking systems and database engines. Just about everyone else could live comfortably pretending that the world was sequential. And then suddenly we all need to be aware of concurrency. The principal reason is the end of Moore’s law as we know it [5].

The end of Moore's law as we know it

This chart show that we can no longer rely on the automatic and regular improvement to our programs’ performance, roughly by a factor of two every two years, thanks to faster chips. The free lunch is over; continued performance increases require taking advantage of concurrency, in particular through multithreading.

Performance is not the only reason for getting into concurrency. Another one is user convenience: ever since the first browser showed that one could write an email and load a Web page in the same window, users have been clamoring for multithreaded applications. Yet another source of concurrency requirements is the need to produce Internet and Web applications.

How do programmers write these applications? The almost universal answer relies on threading mechanisms, typically offered through some combination of language and library mechanisms: Java Threads, .NET threading, POSIX threads, EiffelThreads. The underlying techniques are semaphores and mutexes: nineteen-sixties vintage concepts, rife with risks of data races (access conflicts to a variable or resource, leading to crashes or incorrect computations) and deadlocks (where the system hangs). These risks are worse than the classical bugs of sequential programs because they are very difficult to detect through testing.

Ways to tame the beast

Because the need is so critical, the race is on — a “frantic” race in the words of a memorable New York Times article by John Markoff [4] — to devise a modern programming framework that will bring concurrent programming under control. SCOOP is a contender in this battle. In this post and the next I will try to explain why we think it is exactly what the world needs to tame concurrency.

The usual view, from which SCOOP departs, is that concurrent programming is intrinsically hard and requires a fundamental change in the way programmers think. Indeed some of the other approaches that have attracted attention imply radical departures from accepted programming paradigm:

  • Concurrency calculi such as CSP [6, 7], CCS [8] and the π-Calculus [9] define  high-level mathematical frameworks addressing concurrency, but they are very far from the practical concerns of programmers. An even more serious problem is that they focus on only some aspects of programming, but being concurrent is only one property of a program, among many others (needing a database, relying on graphical user interface, using certain data structures, perform certain computations…). We need mechanisms that integrate concurrency with all the other mechanisms that a program uses.
  • Functional programming languages have also offered interesting idioms for concurrency, taking advantage of the non-imperative nature of functional programming. Advocacy papers have argued for Haskell [10 and Erlang [11] in this role. But should the world renounce other advances of modern software engineering, in particular object-oriented programming, for the sake of these mechanisms? Few people are prepared to take that step, and (as I have discussed in a detailed article [12]) the advantages of functional programming are counter-balanced by the superiority of the object-oriented model in its support for the modular construction of realistic systems.

What if we did not have to throw away everything and relearn programming from the ground up for concurrency? What if we could retain the benefits of five decades of software progress, as crystallized in modern object-oriented programming? This is the conjecture behind SCOOP: that we can benefit from all the techniques we have learned to make our software reliable, extendible and reusable, and add concurrency to the picture in an incremental way.

From sequential to concurrent

A detailed presentation of SCOOP will be for next Monday, but let me give you a hint and I hope whet your appetite by describing how to move a typical example from sequential to concurrent. Here is a routine for transferring money between two accounts:

transfer (amount: INTEGER ; source, target: ACCOUNT)
               -- Transfer amount dollars from source to target.
               enough: source·balance >= amount
         source·withdraw (amount)
         target·deposit (amount)
               removed: source·balance = old source·balance – amount
               added: target·balance = old target·balance + amount

The caller must satisfy the precondition, requiring the source account to have enough money to withdraw the requested amount; the postcondition states that the source account will then be debited, and the target account credited, by that amount.

Now assume that we naïvely apply this routine in a concurrent context, with concurrent calls

        if acc1·balance >= 100 then transfer (acc1, acc2, 100) end


        if acc1·balance >= 100 then transfer (acc1, acc3, 100) end

If the original balance on acc1 is 100, it would be perfectly possible in the absence of a proper concurrency mechanism that both calls, as they reach the test acc1·balance >= 100, find the property to be true and proceed to do the transfer — but incorrectly since they cannot both happen without bringing the balance of acc1 below zero, a situation that the precondition of transfer and the tests were precisely designed to rule out. This is the classic data race. To avoid it in the traditional approaches, you need complicated and error-prone applications of semaphores or conditional critical regions (the latter with their “wait-and-signal” mechanism, just as clumsy and low-level as the operations on semaphores).

In SCOOP, such data races, and data races of any other kind, cannot occur. If the various objects involved are to run in separate threads of control, the declaration of the routine will be of the form

transfer (amount: INTEGER ; source, target: separate ACCOUNT)
               -- The rest of the routine exactly as before.

where separate is the only specific language keyword of SCOOP. This addition of the separate marker does the trick. will result in the following behavior:

  • Every call to transfer is guaranteed exclusive access to both separate arguments (the two accounts).
  • This simultaneous reservation of multiple objects (a particularly tricky task when programmers must take care of it through their own programs, as they must in traditional approaches) is automatically guaranteed by the SCOOP scheduler. The calls wait as needed.
  • As a consequence, the conditional instructions (if then) are no longer needed. Just call transfer and rely on SCOOP to do the synchronization and guarantee correctness.
  • As part of this correctness guarantee, the calls may have to wait until the preconditions hold, in other words until there is enough money on the account.

This is the desired behavior in the transition from sequential to concurrent. It is achieved here not by peppering the code with low-level concurrent operations, not by moving to a completely different programming scheme, but by simply declaring which objects are “separate” (potentially running elsewhere.

The idea of SCOOP is indeed that we reuse all that we have come to enjoy in modern object-oriented programming, and simply declare what needs to be parallel, expecting things to work (“principle of least surprise”).

This is not how most of the world sees concurrency. It’s supposed to be hard. Indeed it is; very hard, in fact. But the view of the people who built SCOOP is that as much of the difficulty should be for the implementers. Hence the title of this article: for programmers, concurrency should be easy. And we think SCOOP demonstrates that it can be.

SCOOP in practice

A few words of caution: we are not saying that SCOOP as provided in EiffelStudio 6.8 is the last word. (Otherwise it would be called 7.0.) In fact, precisely because implementation is very hard, a number of details are still not properly handled; for example, as discussed in recent exchanges on the EiffelStudio user group [13], just printing out the contents of a separate string is non-trivial. We are working to provide all the machinery that will make everything work well, the ambitious goals and the practical details. But the basics of the mechanism are there, with a solid implementation designed to scale properly for large applications and in distributed settings.

In next week’s article I will describe in a bit more detail what makes up the SCOOP mechanisms. To get a preview, you are welcome to look at the documentation [14, 15]; I hope it will convince you that despite what everyone else says concurrent programming can be easy.


[1] Official Intel statement, see e.g. here.

[2] Rich Rashid, Microsoft Faculty Summit, 2008.

[3] This statement was cited at the Microsoft Faculty Summit in 2008 and is part of the official transcript; hence it can be assumed to be authentic, although I do not know the original source.

[4] Patterson and Bell citations from John Markoff, Faster Chips Are Leaving Programmers in Their Dust, New York Times, 17 December 2007, available here.

[5] The chart is from the course material of Tryggve Fossum at the LASER summer school in 2008.

[6] C.A.R. Hoare: em>Communicating Sequential Processes, Prentice Hall, 1985, also available online.

[7] Bill Roscoe: The Theory and Practice of Concurrency, revised edition, Prentice Hall, 2005, also available online.

[8] Robin Milner: Communication and Concurrency, Prentice Hall, 1989.

[9] Robin Milner: Communicating and Mobile Systems: The π-calculus, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[10] Simon Peyton-Jones: Beautiful Concurrency, in Beautiful Code, ed. Greg Wilson, O’Reilly, 2007, also available online.

[11] Joe Armstrong: Erlang, in Communications of the ACM, vol. 53, no. 9, September 2010, pages 68-75.

[12] Bertrand Meyer: Software Architecture: Functional vs. Object-Oriented Design, in Beautiful Architecture, eds. Diomidis Spinellis and Georgios Gousios, O’Reilly, 2009, pages 315-348, available online.

[13] EiffelStudio user group; see here for a link to current discussions and to join the group.

[14] SCOOP project documentation at ETH, available here.

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Incremental research again

After some updating, I republished in the Communications of the ACM blog my discussion of the value of incremental research, which first appeared as an article here .

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Assessing concurrency models

By describing a  poorly conceived hypothetical experiment, last week’s article described the “Professor Smith syndrome” consisting of four risks that threaten the validity of empirical software engineering experiments relying on students in a course:

  • Professor Smith Risk 1: possible bias if the evaluator has a stake in the ideas or tools under assessment.
  • Professor Smith Risk 2: creating different levels of motivation in the different groups (Hawthorne effect).
  • Professor Smith Risk 3: extrapolating from students to professionals.
  • Professor Smith Risk 4: violation of educational ethics if the experiment may cause some students to learn better than others.

If you have developed a great new method or tool and would like to assess it, the best way to address Risk 1 is to find someone else to do the assessment. What if  this solution is not practical? Recently we wanted to get some empirical evidence on the merits of the SCOOP (Simple Concurrent Object-Oriented Programming) approach to concurrency [1, 2], on which I have worked for a long time and which is now part of EiffelStudio since the release of 6.8 a couple of weeks ago. We wanted to see if, despite the Professor Smith risks, we could do a credible study ourselves.

The ETH Software Architecture course[3], into which we introduced some introductory material on concurrency last year (as part of a general effort to push more concurrency into software courses at ETH), looked like a good place to try an evaluation; it is a second-year course, where students, or so we thought, would have little prior experience in concurrent software design.

The study’s authors — Sebastian Nanz, Faraz Torshizi and Michela Pedroni — paid special attention to the methodological issues. To judge for yourself whether we addressed them properly, you can read the current version of our paper to be presented at ESEM 2011 [4]. Do note that it is a draft and that we will improve the paper for final publication.

Here is some of what we did. I will not address the Professor Smith Risk 3, the use of students, which (as Lionel Briand has pointed out in a comment on the previous article) published work has studied; in a later article I will give  references to some of that work. But we were determined to tackle the other risks explicitly, so as to obtain credible results.

The basic experiment was a session in which the students were exposed to two different design methods for concurrent software: multithreaded programming in Java, which I’ll call “Java Threads”, and SCOOP. We wanted to explore whether it is easier to program in SCOOP than in Java. This is too general a hypothesis, so it was refined into three concrete hypotheses: is it easier to understand a SCOOP program? Is it easier to find errors in SCOOP programs? Do programmers using SCOOP make fewer errors?

A first step towards reducing the effect — Professor Smith Risk 1 — of any emotional attachment of the experimenters  to one of the approaches, SCOOP in our case, was to generalize the study. Although what directly interested us was to compare SCOOP against Java Threads, we designed the study as a general scheme to compare concurrency approaches; SCOOP and Java Threads are just an illustration, but anyone else interested in assessing concurrency techniques — say Erlang versus C# concurrency — can apply the same methodology. This decision had two benefits: it freed the study from dependency on the particular techniques, hence, we hope, reducing bias; and as side attraction of the kind that is hard for researchers to resist, it increased the publishability of the results.

Circumstances unexpectedly afforded us another protection against any for-SCOOP bias: unbeknownst to us at the time of the study’s design, a first-year course had newly added (in 2009, whereas our study was performed in 2010) an introduction to concurrent programming — using Java Threads! While we had thought that concurrency in any form would be new to most students, in fact almost all of them had now seen Java Threads before. (The new material in the first-year course was taken by ETH students only, but many transfer students had also already had an exposure to Java Threads.) On the other hand, students had not had any prior introduction to SCOOP. So any advantage that one of the approaches may have had because of students’ prior experience would work against our hypotheses. This unexpected development would not help if the study’s results heavily favored Java Threads, but if they favored SCOOP it would reinforce their credibility.

A particular pedagogical decision was made regarding the teaching of our concurrency material: it started with a self-study rather than a traditional lecture. One of the reasons for this decision was purely pedagogical: we felt (and the course evaluations confirmed) that at that stage of the semester the students would enjoy a break in the rhythm of the course. But another reason was to avoid any bias that might have arisen from any difference in the lecturers’ levels of enthusiasm and effectiveness in teaching the two approaches. In the first course session devoted to concurrency, students were handed study materials presenting Java Threads and SCOOP and containing a test to be taken; the study’s results are entirely based on their answers to these tests. The second session was a traditional lecture presenting both approaches again and comparing them. The purpose of this lecture was to make sure the students got the full picture with the benefit of a teacher’s verbal explanations.

The study material was written carefully and with a tone as descriptive and neutral as possible. To make comparisons meaningful, it does not follow a structure specific to Java Threads or  SCOOP  (as we might have used had we taught only one of these approaches); instead it relies in both cases on the same overall plan  (figure 2 of the paper), based on a neutral analysis of concurrency concepts and issues: threads, mutual exclusion, deadlock etc. Each section then presents, for one such general concurrency question, the solution proposed by Java Threads or SCOOP.

This self-study material, as well as everything else about the study, is freely available on the Web; see the paper for the links.

In the self-study, all students studied both the Java Threads and SCOOP materials. They were randomly assigned to two groups, for which the only difference was the order of studying the approaches. We feel that this decision addresses the ethical issue (Professor Smith Risk 4): any pedagogical effect of reading about A before B rather than the reverse, in the course of a few hours, has to be minimal if you end up reading about the two of them, and on the next day follow a lecture that also covers both.

Having all students study both approaches — a crossover approach in the terminology of [5] — should also address the Hawthorne effect (Professor Smith Risk 2): students have no particular incentive to feel that one of the approaches is more hip than the other. While they are not told that SCOOP is partly the work of the instructors, some of them may know or guess this information; the consequences, positive or negative, are limited, since they are asked in both cases to do as well as they can in answering the assessment questions.

The design of that evaluation is another crucial element in trying to avoid bias. We tried, to the extent possible, to base the assessment on objective criteria. For the first hypothesis (program understanding) the technique was to ask the students to predict the output of some simple concurrent programs. To address the risk of a binary correct/incorrect assessment, and get a more fine-grained view, we devised the programs so that they would produce output strings and measured the Levenshtein (edit) distance to the correct result. For the second hypothesis (ease of program debugging), we gave students programs exhibiting typical errors in both approaches and asked them to tell us both the line number of any error they found and an explanation. Assessing the explanation required human analysis; the idea of also assigning partial credit for pointing out a line number without providing a good explanation is that it may be meaningful that a student found that something is amiss even without being quite able to define what it is. The procedure for the third hypothesis (producing programs with fewer errors) was more complex and required two passes over the result; it requires some human analysis, as you will see in the article, but we hope that the two-pass process removes any bias.

This description of the study is only partial and you should read the article [4] for the full details of the procedure.

So what did we find in the end? Does SCOOP really makes concurrency easier to learn, concurrent programs easier to debug, and concurrent programmers less error-prone? Here too  I will refer you to the article. Let me simply mention that the results held some surprises.

In obtaining these results we tried very hard to address the Professor Smith syndrome and its four risks. Since all of our materials, procedures and data are publicly accessible, described in some detail in the paper, you can determine for yourself how well we met this objective, and whether it is possible to perform credible assessments even of one’s own work.


Further reading: for general guidelines on how to conduct empirical research see [5]; for ethical guidelines, applied to psychological research but generalizable, see [6].

[1] SCOOP Eiffel documentation, available here.

[2] SCOOP project documentation at ETH, available here.

[3] Software Architecture course at ETH, course page (2011).

[4] Sebastian Nanz, Faraz Torshizi, Michela Pedroni and Bertrand Meyer: Design of an Empirical Study for Comparing the Usability of Concurrent Programming Languages, to appear in ESEM 2011 (ACM/IEEE International Symposium on Empirical Software Engineering and Measurement), 22-23 September 2011. Draft available here.

[5] Barbara A. Kitchenham, Shari L. Pfleeger, Lesley M. Pickard, Peter W. Jones, David C. Hoaglin, Khaled El-Emam and Jarrett Rosenberg: Preliminary Guidelines for Empirical Research in Software Engineering, national Research Council Canada (NRC-CNRC), Report ERB-1082, 2001, available here.

[6] Robert Rosenthal: Science and ethics in conducting, analyzing, and reporting psychological research, in  Psychological Science, 5, 1994, p127-134. I found a copy cached by a search engine here.

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The Professor Smith syndrome: Part 2

As stated in the Quiz of a few days ago (“Part 1 ”), we consider the following hypothetical report in experimental software engineering ([1], [2]):

Professor Smith has developed a new programming technique, “Suspect-Oriented Programming” (SOP). To evaluate SOP, he directs half of the students in his “Software Methodology” class to do the project using traditional techniques, and the others to use SOP.

He finds that projects by the students using SOP have, on the average, 15% fewer bugs than the others, and reports that SOP increases software reliability.

What’s wrong with this story?

Professor Smith’s attempt at empirical software engineering is problematic for at least four reasons. Others could arise, but we do not need to consider them if Professor Smith has applied the expected precautions: the number of students should be large enough (standard statistical theory will tell us how much to trust the result for various sample sizes); the students should be assigned to one of the two groups on a truly random basis; the problem should be amenable to both SOP and non-SOP techniques; and the assessment of the number of bugs should in the results should be based on fair and if possible automated evaluation. Some respondents to the quiz cited these problems, but they would apply to any empirical study and we can assume they are being taken care of.

The first problem to consider is that the evaluator and the author of the concept under evaluation are the same person. This is an approach fraught with danger. We have no reason to doubt Professor Smith’s integrity, but he is human. Deep down, he wants SOP to be better than the alternative. That is bound to affect the study. It would be much more credible if someone else, with no personal stake in SOP, had performed it.

The second problem mirrors the first on the students’ side. The students from group 1 were told that they used Professor Smith’s great idea, those from group 2 that they had to use old, conventional, boring stuff. Did both groups apply the same zeal to their work? After all, the students know that Professor Smith created SOP, and maybe he is an convincing advocate, so group 1 students will (consciously or not) do their best; those from group 2 have less incentive to go the extra mile. What we may have at play here is a phenomenon known as the Hawthorne effect [3]: if you know you are being tested for a new technique, you typically work harder and better — and may produce better results even if the technique is worthless! Experiments dedicated to studying this effect show that even  a group that is in reality using the same technique as another does better, at least at the beginning, if it is told that it is using a new, sexy technique.

The first and second problems arise in all empirical studies, software-related or not. They are the reason why medical experiments use placebos and double-blind techniques (where neither the subjects nor the experimenters themselves know who is using which variant). These techniques often do not directly transpose to software experiments, but we should all the same be careful about empirical studies of assessments of one’s own work and about possible Hawthorne effects.

The third problem, less critical, is the validity of a study relying on students. To what extent can we extrapolate from the results to a situation in industry? Software engineering students are on their way to becoming software professionals, but they are not professionals yet. This is a difficult issue because universities, rather than industry, are usually and understandably the place where experiments take place, an sometimes there is no other choice than using students. But then one can question the validity of the results. It depends on the nature of the questions being asked: if the question under study is whether a certain idea is easy to learn, using students is reasonable. But if it is, for example, whether a technique produces less buggy programs, the results can depend significantly on the subjects’ experience, which is different for students and professionals.

The last problem does not by itself affect the validity of the results, but it is a show-stopper nonetheless: Professor Smith’s experiment is unethical! If is is indeed true that SOP is better than the alternative, he is harming students from group 2; in the reverse case, he is harming students from group 1. Only in the case of the null hypothesis (using SOP makes no statistically significant difference) is the experiment ethical, but then it is also profoundly uninteresting. The rule in course-related experiments is a variant of the Hippocratic oath: before all, do not harm. The first purpose of a course is to enrich the students’ knowledge and skills; secondary aims, such as helping the professor’s research, are definitely acceptable, but must never impede the first. The setup described above is all the less acceptable that the project results presumably count towards the course grade, so the students who were forced to use the less good technique, if there demonstrably was one, have grounds to complain.

Note that Professor Smith could partially address this fairness problem by letting students choose their group, instead of assigning them randomly to group 1 or group 2 (based for example on the first letter of their names). But then the results would lose credibility, because this technique introduces self-selection and hence bias: the students who choose SOP may be the more intellectually curious students, and hence possibly the ones who do better anyway.

If Professor Smith cannot ensure fairness, he can still use students for his experiment, but has to run it outside of a course, for example by paying students, or running the experiment as a competition with some prizes for those who produce the programs with fewest bugs. This technique can work, although it introduces further dangers of self-selection. As part of a course, however, you just cannot assign students, on your own authority, to different techniques that might have an different effect on the core goal of the course: the learning experience.

So Professor Smith has a long way to go before he can run experiments that will convey a significant argument in favor of SOP.

Over the years I have seen, as a reader and sometimes as a referee, many Professor Smith papers: “empirical” evaluation of a technique by its own authors, using questionable techniques and not applying the necessary methodological precautions.

A first step is, whenever possible, to use experimenters who are from a completely different group from the developers of the ideas, as in two studies [4] [5] about the effectiveness of pair programming.

And yet! Sometimes no one else is available, and you do want to obtain objective empirical evidence about the merits of your own ideas. You are aware of the risk, and ready to face the cold reality, including if the results are unfavorable. Can you do it?

A recent attempt of ours seems to suggest that this is possible if you exert great care. It will presented in a paper at the next ESEM (Empirical Software Engineering and Measurement) and even though it discusses assessing some aspects of our own designs, using students, as part of the course project which counts for grading, and separating them into groups, we feel it was fair and ethical, and </modesty_filter_on>an ESEM referee wrote: “this is one of the best designed, conducted, and presented empirical studies I have read about recently”<modesty_filter_on>.

How did we proceed? How would you have proceeded? Think about it; feel free to express your ideas as comments to this post. In the next installment of this blog (The Professor Smith Syndrome: Part 3), I will describe our work, and let you be the judge.


[1] Bertrand Meyer: The rise of empirical software engineering (I): the good news, this blog, 30 July 2010, available here.
[2] Bertrand Meyer: The rise of empirical software engineering (II): what we are still missing, this blog, 31 July 2010, available here.

[3] On the Hawthorne effect, there is a good Wikipedia entry. Acknowledgment: I first heard about the Hawthorne effect from Barry Boehm.

[4] Jerzy R. Nawrocki, Michal Jasinski, Lukasz Olek and Barbara Lange: Pair Programming vs. Side-by-Side Programming, in EuroSPI 2005, pages 28-38. I do not have a URL for this article.

[5] Matthias Müller: Two controlled Experiments concerning the Comparison of Pair Programming to Peer Review, in  Journal of Systems and Software, vol. 78, no. 2, pages 166-179, November 2005; and Are Reviews an Alternative to Pair Programming ?, in  Journal of Empirical Software Engineering, vol. 9, no. 4, December 2004. I don’t have a URL for either version. I am grateful to Walter Tichy for directing me to this excellent article.

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The Professor Smith syndrome: Part 1 – a quiz

[As a reminder, this blog is now on a regular schedule, appearing every Monday. Sometimes in mid-week there will be a lighter piece or, as here, a preparation for the following Monday’s entry.]

Consider the following hypothetical report in experimental software engineering (see earlier posts: [1], [2]):

Professor Smith has developed a new programming technique, “Suspect-Oriented Programming” (SOP). To evaluate SOP, he directs half of the students in his “Software Methodology” class to do the project using traditional techniques, and the others to use SOP.

He finds that projects by the students using SOP have, on the average, 15% fewer bugs than the others, and reports that SOP increases software reliability.

Quiz, in advance of next Monday’s post: what’s wrong with this story?


[1] Bertrand Meyer: The rise of empirical software engineering (I): the good news, this blog, 30 July 2010, available here.
[2] Bertrand Meyer: The rise of empirical software engineering (II): what we are still missing, this blog, 31 July 2010, available here.

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