From the Editor
IEEE Software, January/February 2000
10 Best Influences on Software Engineering
I wanted to get some perspective on
the best and worst influences we’ve seen during software engineering’s first
50 years. After drafting an initial list of influences, I turned to our
advisory boards. IEEE Software has active editorial and industrial
advisory boards comprised of leading experts from around the world. What
follows is our discussion of best influences on software engineering. As you
will see, we had some significant differences of opinion!
Any list like this is bound to contain significant subjectivity. As Marten
Thomas, our board member from Praxis Critical Systems, pointed out, this
discussion might not tell us much about software engineering’s prospects,
but it does say a lot about our attitudes at the beginning of the
Reviews and Inspections
One of the great breakthroughs in software engineering was Gerald
Weinberg’s concept of "egoless programming"—the idea that no matter how
smart a programmer is, reviews will be beneficial. Weinberg’s ideas were
formalized by Michael Fagan into a well-defined review technique called
Fagan inspections. The data in support of the quality, cost, and schedule
impact of inspections is overwhelming. They are an indispensable part of
engineering high quality software. I proposed Fagan inspections as one of
the 10 best influences.
Christof Ebert: Inspections are surely a key topic, and with the right
instrumentation and training they are one of the most powerful techniques
for defect detection. They are both effective and efficient, especially for
upfront activities. In addition to large-scale applications, we are applying
them to smaller applications, in extreme programming contexts, where daily
builds also help.
Terry Bollinger: I do think inspections merit inclusion in this list. They
work, they help foster broader understanding and learning, and for the most
part they do lead to better code. They can also be abused, for instance in
cases where people become indifferent to the skill set of the review team
("we reviewed it, so it must be right"), or when they don’t bother with
testing because they are so sure of their inspection process.
Robert Cochran: I would go more basic than this. Reviews of all types are a
major positive influence. Yes, Fagan Inspection is one of the most useful
members of this class, but I would put the class of inspections/reviews in
the list rather than a specific example.
David Parnas’s 25-year old concept of information hiding is one of the
seminal ideas in software engineering—the idea that good design consists of
identifying "design secrets" that a program’s classes, modules, functions,
or even variables and named constants should hide from other parts of the
program. While other design approaches focus on notations for expressing
design ideas, information hiding provides insight into how to come up with
the good design ideas in the first place. Information hiding is at the
foundation of both structured design and object oriented design. In an age
when buzzword methodologies often occupy center stage, information hiding is
a technique with real value.
Terry Bollinger: Here here! To me this technique has done more for real,
bottom-line software quality than almost anything else in software
engineering. I find it worrisome that folks sometimes confuse it with
"abstraction" and other concepts that don’t enforce the rigor of real
information hiding. I find it even more worrisome that some process-oriented
methodologies focus so much on bug counting that they are oblivious to why a
program with good information hiding is enormously easier to debug—and has
fewer bugs to begin with—than one that lacks pervasive use of this concept.
Christof Ebert: Surely agreed, and far too often missing in current
The software engineering literature of the 1970s was full of horror stories
of software meltdowns during the integration phase. Components were brought
together for the first time during "system integration." So many mistaken or
misunderstood interface assumptions were exposed at the same time that
debugging a nest of intertwined assumptions became all but impossible.
Incremental development and integration approaches have virtually eliminated
code-level integration problems on modern software projects. Of these
incremental approaches, the daily build is the best example of a real-world
approach that works. It minimizes integration risk, provides steady evidence
of progress to project stakeholders, keeps quality levels high, and helps
team morale because everyone can see that the software works.
Dave Card: I wouldn’t include "daily builds" as one of the 10 best
influences. I see that as a "brute force" method of integration. It’s kind
of like having a housing contractor confirm that each window is the right
size by holding it up to a hole in the wall, and then chiseling or filling
the hole as necessary to make the window fit.
Terry Bollinger: I disagree. Incremental integration, including daily
builds, represents a retreat from the earlier, ultimately naive view that
everything could be defined with mathematical precision "up front," and all
the goodies would flow from that. Such philosophies overlooked the inherent
limitations of the human brain at foreseeing all the implications of a
complex set of requirements.
If you really want to see the daily build approach in ferocious action,
take a look at the open source community. When things get busy there
releases may even be hours apart. Such fast releases also reduce the human
"set up time" for returning to the context of each problem.
Steve McConnell: At a level of abstraction higher than daily builds, Barry
Boehm’s spiral lifecycle model is an incremental approach that applies to
the whole project. The model’s focus on regular risk reduction is appealing,
but the model is so complicated that it can only be used by experts. I’d
give it the prize for most complicated and least understood diagram of the
20th century. Unlike daily builds, it seems like a great incremental
development approach that has had little impact in practice.
Terry Bollinger: I disagree. The daily build you touted above really is
closer to the spiral model than to "traditional" phased design. And where do
you think interface prototyping goes? It surely is not in the original
phased development models of the 70s and 80s. Barry Boehm noticed that
reality was closer to the daily build model than to the rigidly defined
phased models of that era.
Christof Ebert: I don’t agree with Steve’s conclusion. The spiral model
diagram was too complex because it tried to put everything into one picture.
But the combination of risk management and increments that the spiral model
proposes are highly successful when blended together.
Robert L. Glass: In my experience, the spiral model is the approach that
most good software people have always used; they just didn’t call it that.
Good programmers never did straight waterfall; they may have pretended they
did to appease management, but in fact there was always a mix of
design-code-test-a-little thrown in along the way.
We’ve seen tremendous developments in the past several years in techniques
that bring users more into the software product design process. Techniques
such as JAD sessions, user interface prototyping, and use cases engage users
with product concepts in ways that paper specifications simply cannot.
Requirements problems are usually listed as the #1 cause of software project
failure; these techniques go a long way toward eliminating requirements
Wolfgang Strigel: I think user interface prototyping is especially
important since it addresses the fundamental engineering concept of building
models. No architect would build a bridge without a model to see if those
who pay for it will like it. It’s really simple, if you plan on ignoring the
customer, don’t prototype.
Karl Wiegers: Use cases, sensibly applied, provide a powerful mechanism for
understanding user requirements and building systems that satisfy them.
Steve Mellor: Whatever techniques are applied, we need to be clear about
context. When we talk about use cases for example, they can be very helpful
in a context where there is little communication about the problem. Use
cases put the software folks face-to-face with the clients and users, and
put them in a position to learn the vocabulary of the problem. But use cases
are appalling in helping to create an appropriate set of
abstractions. Should you use use cases? Depends on your context.
Terry Bollinger: I think these techniques tie back to the value of
incremental development. And this includes all forms of
prototyping—communication protocols, subsystem interfaces, and even the
method interfaces to an object class. There’s a lot of merit to trying out
different approaches to discover what you missed, misunderstood, or got out
Automated Revision Control
Automated revision control takes care of mountains of housekeeping details
associated with team programming projects. In the Mythical Man-Month
in 1975, Fred Brooks’ "surgical team" made use of a librarian. Today, that
person’s function is handled software. The efficiencies achieved by today’s
programming teams would be inconceivable without automated revision control.
Terry Bollinger: The promise is high, and the fundamental concept is solid.
I don’t think our associated methods for organizing large numbers of
programmers efficiently are good enough yet to make the value of this
technology really shine. For example, the really interesting code still
tends to get written by relatively small teams for whom the benefits of
automated revision control are much less conspicuous, for example, many of
the open source efforts.
Perhaps the most important software engineering innovations of the next
century will come not from more intensive methods for making people more
organized, but rather from learning to automate the overall software process
in ways that we do not currently understand very well, but which revolve
around the overall ability of a computer to remember, communicate, and
organize data far better than people do.
I think this kind of innovation will be closely related to methods such as
automated revision control. Our current planning tools, which too often just
try to automate paper methods, certainly don’t seem to be there yet.
What we’ve seen with the Open Source development is just the beginning of
collaborative efforts made possible via the Internet. The potential this
creates for effective, geographically distributed computing is truly mind
Terry Bollinger: Internet interactions allow interesting sorts of
interactions to happen, and not just with source code. I think this one is
important simply because it isn’t very easy to predict—e.g., it may lead to
approaches that are neither proprietary nor open source, but which are
effective in ways we don’t fully foresee or understand yet.
Wolfgang Strigel: Yes, although it stands on the foundation of best
practices in software design and development of the 20th century, it brings
new aspects which will change the face of software development as we know
Programming Languages Hall of Fame: Fortran, Cobol, Turbo Pascal, Visual
A few specific technologies have had significant influence on software
development in the past 30 years. As the first widely used third generation
language, Fortran was influential, at least symbolically. Cobol was arguably
at least as influential in practice. Originally developed by the U.S.
defense department for business use, most practitioners have long-forgotten
Cobol’s military origins. Cobol has recently come under attack as being
responsible for Y2K problems, but let’s get serious. Y2K is only a Cobol
problem because so much code has been written in Cobol. Does anyone really
think programmers would have used 4-digit years instead of 2-digit if they
had been programming in Fortran instead of Cobol?
Christof Ebert: The real added value of Cobol was to make large IT systems
feasible and maintainable, and many of those are still running. The
"problems" with Cobol weren’t really about Cobol per se. The problems were
with the programmers who happen to be using Cobol. Today, many of these same
programmers are using or abusing Java or C++, and the legacy-problems
discussion will surely come back someday with regard to those languages.
Editor’s Note: IEEE Software’s March/April 2000 issue will focus
on recent developments in Cobol and future directions.
first integrated editor, compiler, debugger—forever changed computer
programming. Prior to Turbo Pascal, compilation was done on disk, separate
from editing. To check his work, a programmer had to exit his editing
environment, compile the program, and check the results. Turbo Pascal put
the editor, compiler, and debugger all in memory at the same time. By making
compile-link-execute cycles almost instantaneous, the feedback loop between
programmer’s creating code and executing the code was shortened. Programmers
became able to experiment in code more effectively than they could in older,
more batch-oriented environments. Quick turnaround cycles paved the way for
effective code-focused development approaches, such as those in use at
Microsoft and touted by Extreme Programming advocates.
Terry Bollinger: I think the real message here is not "Turbo Pascal" per
se, but rather the inception of truly integrated programming environments.
With that broadening (integrated environments, with Turbo Pascal as the
first commercial example), I would agree that this merits inclusion in the
Christof Ebert: Aside from better coding, such programming environments
also made the incremental approaches feasible that we discussed earlier.
Academics and researchers talked about components and reuse for decades,
and nothing happened. Within 18 months of Visual Basic’s release, a thriving
pre-built components market had sprung from nothing. The
direct-manipulation, drag-and-drop, point-and-click programming interface
was a revolutionary advance.
Christof Ebert: Even more relevant is the single measure of speed of
penetration of VB. By far the of the fastest growing "languages" and still
going strong. Only Java passed it recently in speed.
Terry Bollinger: Visual Basic provided the benefits promised (but for the
most part never really delivered) by object-oriented programming, mainly by
keeping the "visual" part of the object paradigm and largely dispensing with
the complex conversion of objects into linguistic constructions. Visual
Basic is limited, but within those limits it has had a profound impact on
software development and has made meaningful development possible for a much
larger group of people than would have been possible without it.
Kudos to Microsoft for this one—and that’s coming from a guy who co-edited
the Linux issue!
Capability Maturity Model for Software (SW-CMM)
The Software Engineering Institute’s SW-CMM is one of the few branded
methodologies that has had any affect on typical software organizations.
More than 1000 organizations and 5000 projects have undergone SW-CMM
assessment, and dozens of organizations have produced mountains of
compelling data on the effectiveness of process improvement programs based
on the SW-CMM model.
Dave Card: I would consider the software CMM to be both a best influence
and a dead end. Steve has explained the case for a best influence. However,
I have also seen a lot of gaming and misuse of the CMM that leads to wasted
and counterproductive activity. Even worse, it has spawned a growth industry
in CMMs for all kinds of things—apparently based on the premise that if your
model has five levels it must be right, regardless of whether you have any
real knowledge of the subject matter. It reminds me of the novel,
Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the answer was 42—except that now
One of the unanticipated effects of the CMM has been to make the
"effective" body of software engineering knowledge much shallower. My
expectation was that an organization that was found to be weak in risk
management, for example, would read one of the many good books on risk
management or get help from an expert in the field. Instead, what many (if
not most) organizations do, is to take the 4 pages in the CMM that describe
risk management and re-package it as 4-6 pages of their local process
Overall, I believe the CMM has helped a lot. However, I think it does have
some harmful side effects that can be mitigated if the community is willing
to recognize them. Moreover, there are limits to how far it can take us into
the 21st century.
Nancy Mead: I don’t think the CMM per se is what is significant—it’s the
recognition of a need for standardized software processes, whatever they may
Robert Cochran: Standardization is key. Another example is recent efforts
to put a good structure on RAD using the DSDM approach. DSDM is not well
known in the US, but interest is rapidly growing on this side of the
And don’t forget the many thousands who have used ISO9000 as their SPI
framework. I would say that SPI using any of the recognized frameworks (or
indeed a mixture of them) is where benefit is gained. They give a structure
and coherence to the SPI activity.
Terry Bollinger: I do think that some concept of "process improvement"
probably belongs in this list, including both ISO 9001-3 and maybe the first
three levels of CMM. But I disagree that the CMM taken as a whole has been
one of the most positive influences of the twentieth century.
Wolfgang Strigel: This one can really stir the emotions. Despite its
simplicity, the main problem with the CMM is its rigid and ignorant
interpretation. The concept itself is sort of a truism. I believe the
biggest accomplishment of CMM is in the Software Engineering Institute’s
success in marketing the concept. It certainly has raised the awareness
within thousands of companies about "good software engineering practices."
Universities were woefully slow in recognizing software engineering as a
topic, and the SEI jumped into the fray, educating not only new grads but
old professionals as well. Its problems get aggravated with people reading
too much into it. The grading is questionable and not the most relevant part
of the CMM. I disagree that ISO 9000-3 would merit a similar place in the
hall of fame. After all, with ISO 9000-3 you can diligently do all the wrong
things, and you will be compliant as long as you do them diligently.
It may be time to throw away the old CMM model and come up with an update
that takes into account the experiences from the last 10 years. I don’t
think we need a new model or more models; just taking the cobwebs out of the
current one will carry us for the next 10 years.
Christof Ebert: Despite the argument about ISO 9000, the CMM is definitely
the standard that set the pace. At present, it is the framework that allows
benchmarking and that contributes most to solving the software engineering
crises—just by defining standard terminology. This is my personal favorite
Object Oriented Programming
Object oriented programming offered great improvements in "natural" design
and programming. After the initial hype faded, practitioners were sometimes
left with programming technologies that increased complexity, provided only
marginal productivity gains, produced unmaintainable code, and could only be
used by experts. In the final analysis, the real benefit of object oriented
programming is probably not objects, per se, but the ability to aggregate
programming concepts into larger chunks than subroutines or functions.
Terry Bollinger: Whatever real benefits people were getting from OO, it was
mostly coming from the use of traditional Parnas-style information hiding,
and not all the other accoutrements of OO.
OO is a badly mixed metaphor. It tries to play on the visual abilities of
the human brain to organize objects in a space, but then almost immediately
converts that over into an awful set of syntax construction that don’t map
well at all into the linguistic parts of our brains. The result, surprise
surprise, is an ugly mix that is usually neither particularly intuitive nor
as powerful as it was originally touted. (Has anyone done any really deep
inheritance hierarchies lately? And got them to actually work without ending
up putting in more effort than it would have taken to simply do the whole
thing over again?)
Christof Ebert: Agreed, because people haven’t taken the time to understand
object orientation completely before they design with it. In a short time,
it has created more harm to systems than so-called "bad Cobol programming."
Takaya Ishida: I think it is questionable whether Cobol and Object Oriented
Programming should be on the 10 best list or 10 worst list. It seems to me
that Cobol and other popular high level procedural languages should be
blamed for most of the current problems in programming. It is so easy to
program in such languages that even novice programmers can write large
programs. But the result is often not well-structured. With object-oriented
languages such as Smalltalk, programmers take pains to learn how to program,
and the result is well structured programs. Having programming approaches
that can be used only by experts may be a good idea. Our past attitude of
"easy going" programming is a major cause of the present software crisis
including the Y2K issue.
Terry Bollinger: I really like Smalltalk style OO, and I’m optimistic about
Java. The real killer was C++, which mixed metaphors in a truly horrible
fashion and positively encouraged old C programmers to create classes with a
few hundred "methods" in them, to make a system "object oriented."Argh! So
maybe the culprit here is more C++, rather than OO per se, and there’s still
hope for object oriented programming.
Component Based Development
Component-based development has held out much promise, but aside from a few
limited successes, it seems to be shaping up to be another idea that works
better in the laboratory than in the real world. Component-version
incompatibilities have given rise to massive setup-program headaches,
unpredictable interactions among programs, de-installation problems, and a
need for utilities that restore all the components on a person’s computer to
"last known good state." This might be one of the 10 best for the twenty
first century, probably not for the twentieth.
Robert L. Glass: The reuse (component-based) movement might have trouble
getting off the ground, but some related developments have shown great
promise. Design patterns are a powerful medium for capturing, expressing,
and packaging design concepts/artifacts—"design components" if you will. The
patterns movement looks to be the successful end-run around the reuse
movement. Similarly, we’ve been very successful in domain generalization.
Compiler-building was perhaps the first such success many decades ago
Steve McConnell: Yes, 30 years ago a person could get a Ph.D. just for
writing a compiler, but today compiler-building domain-generalization has
been such a success that compiler building is usually taken for granted.
Robert L. Glass: There have been too few successes other than compiler
building. I would assert that the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system,
such as SAP’s, is the most recent and most successful example of building
general purpose software to handle a whole domain—in this case, backoffice
Terry Bollinger: The components area has indeed been a major headache, but
it’s sort of an "ongoing" problem, not one that has been fully recognized as
a dead end. Visual Basic is an example of how component based design can
work if the environment is sufficiently validated ahead of time.
The fully generic "anything from anybody" model is much more problematic,
and is almost certainly beyond the real state of the art—versus the
"marketing state of the art"—which generally is a few years to a few
centuries more advanced than the real state of the art.
Christof Ebert: Work on components helped to see the direction towards
frameworks, reuse, and pattern languages. So it is a useful intermediate
step. Thinking in components still is a good design principle and entirely
in line with the point made earlier about information hiding.
Metrics and Measurement
Metrics and measurement have the potential to revolutionize software
engineering. In the few instances in which they have been used effectively
(NASA’s Software Engineering Lab and a few other organizations), the
insights that well-defined numbers can provide have been amazingly useful.
Powerful as they can be, software process measurements aren’t the end,
they’re the means to the end. The metrics community seems to forget this
lesson again every year.
Dave Card: I would include "metrics" as a dead end, but I also would
include "measurement" in the list of top prospects for the twenty first
century. The word "metrics" doesn’t appear in most dictionaries as a
noun—and that is a good indication of how poorly measurement is understood
and why it is consequently misused in our discipline. The ability to express
things meaningfully in numbers is an essential component of any engineering
discipline, so I don’t see how we can have "software engineering" in the
21st century without "measurement."
Deependra Moitra: Any problems are not with metrics but with the metrics
community. We cannot blame an idea/concept/approach if people messed up with
it. I can’t imagine performing my job without metrics, especially in a
geographically distributed development mode.
Terry Bollinger: Metrics are a problem. Our foundations are off badly in
this area, because we keep trying to apply variations of the metrics that
worked well for manufacturing to the highly creative design problems of
software. It’s a lot like trying to teach people how to write like
Shakespeare by constantly checking their words for spelling errors.
Christof Ebert: Entirely true, but still metrics as such are of big value.
We should see metrics as a tool (or means). Metrics usage has matured
dramatically over the past ten years. A metrics discipline in software
engineering is as necessary as theoretic foundations are in other
engineering disciplines to avoid software development approaches that are
built on nothing more than gut feeling.
Wolfgang Strigel: Regardless of terminology (metrics or measurements), I
believe that this should become another top contender for the next century.
How can we claim to be professionals if nobody can measure some basics facts
about the development activity? How can we manage activities that cannot be
measured? Measurement failed in this century not because it is a bad
concept, but because our profession is still in its infancy. There is no
other engineering discipline that would not measure product characteristics.
And there is no other manufacturing activity that would not try to measure
output over input (=productivity). It is not the concept of measurement that
is at fault. The problem are consumers who have become too tolerant of
faulty software and a red-hot market place in which inefficiencies do not
cause the failure of companies. If there was an oversupply in software
developers we would see a lot more measurement applied to optimize the
Maarten Boasson: The greatest problem in the software engineering community
is the tendency to think that a new idea will solve all problems. This
tendency is so strong that previously solved problems are forgotten as soon
as a new idea gains some support, and consequently problems are re-solved in
the new style. This is a perfect recipe for preventing progress!
This behavior suggests (to me, at least) that the field of software
engineering, and even computer science, is very immature. This is not
anybody’s fault, but the simple result of the very short time that computing
has been around. Compared to other fields, we really are hardly out of the
nursing stage. What is collectively our fault, however, is the religious
fanaticism with which the current belief (or one’s personal belief) is
protected against "attacks" from people doing things differently. Such
behavior probably also existed during the early years of other disciplines,
but why don’t we learn from their example?
The problems in developing today’s and tomorrow’s systems are overwhelming;
they require many different types of problems to be solved. No other
scientific or engineering discipline relies on a single technique for
addressing problems—why are we, so-called professional engineers (and
computer scientists), stupid enough to think that our field is fundamentally
different in that respect?
So, what do we need to do? First, industrial management has to understand
that SE is not an engineering discipline like so many others (yet) and that
standards, methods and tools are all likely to be wrong (once we really
understand what developing software means). This implies that software
development is still much more of an art than management believes it to be
and that therefore, only the best and the brightest should be allowed to
develop systems of more than trivial complexity. A side effect of such an
approach would be a significant reduction in effort needed for their
development. Second, real experiments with novel/alternative approaches to
software development should be carried out, possibly as a cooperation
between industry and academia. These should not be simplified, typical
academic problems, but real life systems. Such experiments will have to be
performed as a parallel activity to the development of the systems in the
traditional way; indeed, no manager will accept the risk involved in this
type of experiment (although, my guess is that the risk is generally smaller
than the traditional approach). Results—whichever way—should be analyzed and
widely published. Third, the metric for academic success needs to be
reconsidered. The "publish or perish" paradigm is a guarantee for large
amounts of garbage being published. Also, the really interesting results in
multidisciplinary work are practically unpublishable, due to the strong
segmentation of the field, with super-experts in epsilon-width fields.
Fourth, we (IEEE Software, e.g.) should continuously stress that
problems have not yet been solved, that innovation is essential and that all
claims to having invented THE solution are simply wrong.
Sidebar: 10 Best Influences on Software Engineering in the 20th CenturyReviews and Inspections
Automated Revision Control
Programming Languages Hall of Fame: Fortran, Cobol, Turbo Pascal, Visual
Software Capability Maturity Model (SW-CMM)
Object Oriented Programming
Metrics and Measurement
Editor: Steve McConnell, Construx Software, 11820 Northup
Way #E200, Bellevue, WA 98005.