The end of software engineering and the last methodologist

(Reposted from the CACM blog [*].)

Software engineering was never a popular subject. It started out as “programming methodology”, evoking the image of bearded middle-aged men telling you with a Dutch, Swiss-German or Oxford accent to repent and mend your ways. Consumed (to paraphrase Mark Twain) by the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might actually enjoy coding.

That was long ago. With a few exceptions including one mentioned below, to the extent that anyone still studies programming methodology, it’s in the agile world, where the decisive argument is often “I always say…”. (Example from a consultant’s page:  “I always tell teams: `I’d like a [user] story to be small, to fit in one iteration but that isn’t always the way.’“) Dijkstra did appeal to gut feeling but he backed it through strong conceptual arguments.

The field of software engineering, of which programming methodology is today just a small part, has enormously expanded in both depth and width. Conferences such as ICSE and ESEC still attract a good crowd, the journals are buzzing, the researchers are as enthusiastic as ever about their work, but… am I the only one to sense frustration? It is not clear that anyone outside of the community is interested. The world seems to view software engineering as something that everyone in IT knows because we all develop software or manage people who develop software. In the 2017 survey of CS faculty hiring in the U.S., software engineering accounted, in top-100 Ph.D.-granting universities, for 3% of hires! (In schools that stop at the master’s level, the figure is 6%; not insignificant, but not impressive either given that these institutions largely train future software engineers.) From an academic career perspective, the place to go is obviously  “Artificial Intelligence, Data Mining, and Machine Learning”, which in those top-100 universities got 23% of hires.

Nothing against our AI colleagues; I always felt “AI winter” was an over-reaction [1], and they are entitled to their spring. Does it mean software engineering now has to go into a winter of its own? That is crazy. Software engineering is more important than ever. The recent Atlantic  “software apocalypse” article (stronger on problems than solutions) is just the latest alarm-sounding survey. Or, for just one recent example, see the satellite loss in Russia [2] (juicy quote, which you can use the next time you teach a class about the challenges of software testing: this revealed a hidden problem in the algorithm, which was not uncovered in decades of successful launches of the Soyuz-Frigate bundle).

Such cases, by the way, illustrate what I would call the software professor’s dilemma, much more interesting in my opinion than the bizarre ethical brain-teasers (you see what I mean, trolley levers and the like) on which people in philosophy departments spend their days: is it ethical for a professor of software engineering, every morning upon waking up, to go to cnn.com in the hope that a major software-induced disaster has occurred,  finally legitimizing the profession? The answer is simple: no, that is not ethical. Still, if you have witnessed the actual state of ordinary software development, it is scary to think about (although not to wish for) all the catastrophes-in-waiting that you suspect are lying out there just waiting for the right circumstances .

So yes, software engineering is more relevant than ever, and so is programming methodology. (Personal disclosure: I think of myself as the very model of a modern methodologist [3], without a beard or a Dutch accent, but trying to carry, on today’s IT scene, the torch of the seminal work of the 1970s and 80s.)

What counts, though, is not what the world needs; it is what the world believes it needs. The world does not seem to think it needs much software engineering. Even when software causes a catastrophe, we see headlines for a day or two, and then nothing. Radio silence. I have argued to the point of nausea, including at least four times in this blog (five now), for a simple rule that would require a public auditing of any such event; to quote myself: airline transportation did not become safer by accident but by accidents. Such admonitions fall on deaf ears. As another sign of waning interest, many people including me learned much of what they understand of software engineering through the ACM Risks Forum, long a unique source of technical information on software troubles. The Forum still thrives, and still occasionally reports about software engineering issues, but most of the traffic is about privacy and security (with a particular fondness for libertarian rants against any reasonable privacy rule that the EU passes). Important topics indeed, but where do we go for in-depth information about what goes wrong with software?

Yet another case in point is the evolution of programming languages. Language creation is abuzz again with all kinds of fancy new entrants. I can think of one example (TypeScript) in which the driving force is a software engineering goal: making Web programs safer, more scalable and more manageable by bringing some discipline into the JavaScript world. But that is the exception. The arguments for many of the new languages tend to be how clever they are and what expressive new constructs they introduce. Great. We need new ideas. They would be even more convincing if they addressed the old, boring problems of software engineering: correctness, robustness, extendibility, reusability.

None of this makes software engineering less important, or diminishes in the least the passion of those of us who have devoted our careers to the field. But it is time to don our coats and hats: winter is upon us.

Notes

[1] AI was my first love, thanks to Jean-Claude Simon at Polytechnique/Paris VI and John McCarthy at Stanford.

[2] Thanks to Nikolay Shilov for alerting me to this information. The text is in Russian but running it through a Web translation engine (maybe this link will work) will give the essentials.

[3] This time borrowing a phrase from James Noble.

[*] I am reposting these CACM blog articles rather than just putting a link, even though as a software engineer I do not like copy-paste. This is my practice so far, and it might change since it raises obvious criticism, but here are the reasons: (A) The audiences for the two blogs are, as experience shows, largely disjoint. (B) I like this site to contain a record of all my blog articles, regardless of what happens to other sites. (C) I can use my preferred style conventions.

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