Archive for January 2023

The legacy of Barry Boehm

August of last year brought the sad news of Barry Boehm’s passing away on August 20. If software engineering deserves at all to be called engineering today, it is in no small part thanks to him.

“Engineer” is what Boehm was, even though his doctorate and other degrees were all in mathematics. He looked the part (you might almost expect him to carry a slide rule in his shirt pocket, until you realized that as a software engineer he did not need one) and more importantly he exuded the seriousness, dedication, precision, respect for numbers, no-nonsense attitude and practical mindset of outstanding engineers. He was employed as an engineer or engineering manager in the first part of his career, most notably at TRW, a large aerospace company (later purchased by Northrop Grumman), turning to academia (USC) afterwards, but even as a professor he retained that fundamental engineering ethos.




LASER Summer School, Elba Island (Italy), September 2010
From left: Walter Tichy, Barry Boehm, Vic Basili (photograph by Bertrand Meyer)

Boehm’s passion was to turn the study of software away from intuition and over to empirical enquiry, rooted in systematic objective studies of actual projects. He was not the only one advocating empirical methods (others from the late seventies on included Basili, Zelkowitz, Tichy, Gilb, Rombach, McConnell…) but he had an enormous asset: access to mines of significant data—not student experiments, as most researchers were using!—from numerous projects at TRW. (Basili and Zelkowitz had similar sources at NASA.) He patiently collected huge amounts of project information, analyzed them systematically, and started publishing paper after paper about what works for software development; not what we wish would work, but what actually does on the basis of project results.

Then in 1981 came his magnum opus, Software Engineering Economics (Prentice Hall), still useful reading today (many people inquired over the years about projects for a second edition, but I guess he felt it was not warranted). Full of facts and figures, the book also popularized the Cocomo model for cost prediction, still in use nowadays in a revised version developed at USC (Cocomo II, 1995, directly usable through a simple Web interface at

Cocomo provides a way to estimate both the cost and the duration of a project from the estimated number of lines of code (alternatively, in Cocomo II, from the estimated number of function points), and some auxiliary parameters to account for each project’s specifics. Boehm derived the formula by fitting from thousands of projects.

When people first encounter the idea of Cocomo (even in a less-rudimentary form than the simplified one I just gave), their first reaction is often negative: how can one use a single formula to derive an estimate for any project? Isn’t the very concept ludicrous anyway since by definition we do not know the number of lines of code (or even of function points) before we have developed the project? With lines of code, how do we distinguish between different languages? There are answers to all of these questions (the formula is ponderated by a whole set of criteria capturing project specifics, lines of code calibrated by programming language level do correlate better than most other measures with actual development effort, a good project manager will know in advance the order of magnitude of the code size etc.). Cocomo II is not a panacea and only gives a rough order of magnitude, but remains one of the best available estimation tools.

Software Engineering Economics and the discussion of Cocomo also introduced important laws of software engineering, not folk wisdom as was too often (and sometimes remains) prevalent, but firm results. I covered one in an article in this blog some time ago, calling it the “Shortest Possible Schedule Theorem”: if a serious estimation method, for example Cocomo, has determined an optimal cost and time for a project, you can reduce the time by devoting more resources to the project, but only down to a certain limit, which is about 75% of the original. In other words, you can throw money at a project to make things happen faster, but the highest time reduction you will ever be able to gain is by a quarter. Such a result, confirmed by many studies (by Boehm and many others after him), is typical of the kind of strong empirical work that Boehm favored.

The CMM and CMMI models  of technical management are examples of important developments that clearly reflect Boehm’s influence. I am not aware that he played any direct role (the leader was Watts Humphrey, about whom I wrote a few years ago), but the models’ constant emphasis on measurement, feedback and assessment are in line with the principles  so persuasively argued in his articles and books.

Another of his famous contributions is the Spiral model of the software lifecycle. His early work and Software Engineering Economics had made Boehm a celebrity in the field, one of its titans in fact, but also gave him the reputation, deserved or not, of representing what may be called big software engineering, typified by the TRW projects from which he drew his initial results: large projects with large budgets, armies of programmers of variable levels of competence, strong quality requirements (often because of the mission- and life-critical nature of the projects) leading to heavy quality assurance processes, active regulatory bodies, and a general waterfall-like structure (analyze, then specify, then design, then implement, then verify). Starting in the eighties other kinds of software engineering blossomed, pioneered by the personal computer revolution and Unix, and often typified by projects, large or small but with high added value, carried out iteratively by highly innovative teams and sometimes by just one brilliant programmer. The spiral model is a clear move towards flexible modes of software development. I must say I was never a great fan (for reasons not appropriate for discussion here) of taking the Spiral literally, but the model was highly influential and made Boehm a star again for a whole new generation of programmers in the nineties. It also had a major effect on agile methods, whose notion of  “sprint ” can be traced directly the spiral. It is a rare distinction to have influenced both the CMM and agile camps of software engineering with all their differences.

This effort not to remain wrongly identified with the old-style massive-project software culture, together with his natural openness to new ideas and his intellectual curiosity, led Boehm to take an early interest in agile methods; he was obviously intrigued by the iconoclasm of the first agile publications and eager to understand how they could be combined with timeless laws of software engineering. The result of this enquiry was his 2004 book (with Richard Turner) Balancing Agility and Discipline: A Guide for the Perplexed, which must have been the first non-hagiographic presentation (still measured, may be a bit too respectful out of a fear of being considered old-guard) of agile approaches.

Barry Boehm was an icon of the software engineering movement, with the unique position of having been in essence present at creation (from the predecessor conference of ICSE in 1975) and accompanying, as an active participant, the stupendous growth and change of the field over half a century.



Barry Boehm at a dinner at ICSE 2006, Shanghai (photograph by Bertrand Meyer)

I was privileged to meet Barry very early, as we were preparing a summer school in 1978 on Programming Methodology where the other star was Tony Hoare. It was not clear how the mix of such different personalities, the statistics-oriented UCLA-graduate American engineer and the logic-driven classically-trained (at Oxford) British professor would turn out.

Boehm could be impatient with cryptic academic pursuits; one exercise in Software Engineering Economics (I know only a few other cases of sarcasm finding its refuge in exercises from textbooks) presents a problem in software project management and asks for an answer in multiple-choice form. All the proposed choices are sensible management decisions, except for one which goes something like this: “Remember that Bob Floyd [Turing-Awarded pioneer of algorithms and formal verification] published in Communications of the ACM vol. X no. Y pages 658-670 that scheduling of the kind required can be performed in O (n3 log log n) instead of O (n3 log n) as previously known; take advantage of this result to spend 6 months writing an undecipherable algorithm, then discover that customers do not care a bit about the speed.” (Approximate paraphrase from memory [1].)

He could indeed be quite scathing of what he viewed as purely academic pursuits removed from the reality of practical projects. Anyone who attended ICSE 1979 a few months later in Munich will remember the clash between him and Dijkstra; the organizers had probably engineered it (if I can use that term), having assigned them the topics  “Software Engineering As It Is” and “Software Engineering as It Should Be”, but it certainly was spectacular. There had been other such displays of the divide before. Would we experience something of the kind at the summer school?

No clash happened; rather, the reverse, a meeting of minds. The two sets of lectures (such summer schools lasted three weeks at that time!) complemented each other marvelously, participants were delighted, and the two lecturers also got along very well. They were, I think, the only native English speakers in that group, they turned out to have many things in common (such as spouses who were also brilliant software engineers on their own), and I believe they remained in contact for many years. (I wish I had a photo from that school—if anyone reading this has one, please contact me!)

Barry was indeed a friendly, approachable, open person, aware of his contributions but deeply modest.

Few people leave a profound personal mark on a field. A significant part of software engineering as it is today is a direct consequence of Barry’s foresight.



[1] The full text of the exercise will appear shortly as a separate article on this blog.


Recycled A version of this article appeared previously in the Communications of the ACM blog.

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