Empirical Software Engineering
As researchers investigate how software gets made, a new empire for empirical research opens up
If we can’t predict who will become a good programmer, can we at least certify who already is one? Would it help if software developers were required to undergo some sort of certification? In most of the industrialized world, engineering professionals must be licensed; a preliminary exam permits them to practice and gain experience as an engineer-in-training, followed some years later by a deeper exam, often specialized according to their discipline. Successful candidates are then allowed to offer their services to the public. Could such a program be developed for software engineers? And would it actually make anything better?
If done right, such a program would be based on a codified body of necessary knowledge and best practices, just as exams in civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering are. A major effort under way right now is the Software Engineering Body of Knowledge project (SWEBOK), sponsored by the IEEE Computer Society. Their intentions are noble, and conscientious professionals are steadily assembling a potential set of standards.
We are skeptical of this work, for the very reasons that we are committed to empirical software engineering research. We believe that it puts the cart before the horse, that we simply don’t yet know enough about what actually works and what doesn’t to define such standards. In place of a trustworthy gateway, we fear that a Software Engineering Body of Strong Opinion would create a false belief that we know more than we do at present about how software can and should be made, how the quality of software can be rigorously determined and how programmers should take on the job of programming. That knowledge is the very thing empirical software researchers are stalking.
For example, in the 1990s a group of respected software designers combined forces to create a graphical notation for computer programs called the Unified Modeling Language (UML), which was intended to fill the role of blueprints and circuit diagrams in civil and electrical engineering. Despite a great deal of hype, UML never really caught on: Almost everyone who earns a degree in computer science learns about UML at some point, but very few programmers use it voluntarily (although some are obliged to use it in order to satisfy the terms of government procurement contracts).
In 2007, Mario Cherubini, Gina Venolia, Rob DeLine and Andrew Ko studied what kinds of diagrams programmers actually draw and why they draw them. They found that in almost all cases, programmers’ sketches were transient in nature; they were meant to be aids to conversation rather than archival documentation. They also found that the cost of turning hastily drawn whiteboard doodles into formal instructions was greater than the value of the diagrams to the programmers who were creating them. Companies selling UML drawing tools ignore this awkward result, but we are hopeful that a younger generation of software designers will incorporate into their work both findings like these and the research methods behind them.
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