“A prudent question is
one-half of wisdom.”
— Francis Bacon
In 1620, Francis Bacon published the
Novum Organum, a masterwork that challenged Bacon’s
contemporaries to discard their ancient reliance on pure
deductive reasoning and embrace a scientific method based on
observation and experience. He imagined a new world of culture
and leisure that could be gained by inquiry into the laws and
processes of nature. In describing this world, he anticipated
the effects of advances in science, engineering, and technology.
Bacon’s scientific method consisted of
Purge your mind of prejudices—what
Bacon called “superstition.”
Collect observations and experiences
Stop, survey what you have seen, and
draw initial conclusions (the “first vintage”).
Novum Organum was part of a larger
work called Instauratio Magna, which set out to organize
the sciences, define a method of scientific inquiry, collect
observations and facts, present examples of the new method, and
define a new philosophy based on the results of this scientific
work. This work so influenced modern scientific methods that
Bacon is often called the Father of Modern Science.
The title page of Novum Organum
contained an image of a ship passing through the Pillars of
Hercules. The Pillars of Hercules were generally accepted to
have stood on the sides of the Strait of Gibraltar, the sole
passage between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
For the ancients, the Pillars of Hercules symbolized the limits
of human’s possible explorations. Beyond the pillars lay the
edge of the earth; the ancients had not been inclined to
progress into those outer reaches and leave the old world
This is the title page from Bacon’s
Instauratio Magna, which contains his
Novum Organum. The ancients were reluctant to sail beyond the
Pillars of Hercules.
At this time, average software development
practices are becalmed in a windless sea of code-and-fix
programming—a kind of flat earth approach to software
development that was proved ineffective 20 years ago.
Leading software engineers have a clear idea of what lies beyond
software’s Pillars of Hercules—software engineering has already
had its Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama, and Ferdinand Magellan who
have explored the new world of better software engineering
practices. As Chapter 13 will describe, vast software
riches await in waters that have been charted extensively but
are traveled infrequently by average software practitioners.
Considering the disparity between the best
software organizations and the worst, the current challenge is
not so much to advance the state of the art as it is to raise
the average level of practice. The new world has been adequately
explored; it’s time to start colonizing. The traditional means
of raising the level of practice in a field, especially one that
affects the public welfare, is through establishment of a formal
Although the term is often used casually,
the notion of a “profession” has a long and well-defined legal
standing. The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) in the United
States says that a person employed in a “professional capacity”
can be distinguished by several characteristics.
A professional’s work typically
requires advanced knowledge in science or a field of learning
that is acquired through a prolonged course of specialized
study. The CFR distinguishes this from a general academic
education. It also distinguishes it from training in routine
processes, whether they be mental, manual, or physical. The CFR
goes on to note that professional work can be creative and
artistic. The work may depend primarily on the inventiveness,
imagination, or talent of the person doing the work.
The CFR states that professional work
requires the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment in
its performance. The work is predominantly intellectual and
varied in character. The CFR again differentiates this from
routine mental, manual, or physical work.
Most software developers will recognize
characteristics of their own work in the CFR’s description of a
profession. The work certainly requires advanced knowledge
(detailed technical knowledge, anyway), and it benefits from
specialized instruction and study. Software development contains
a significant creative element, and clearly calls for a great
deal of discretion and judgment. In short, the work performed by
software developers seems clearly to meet the definition of
“professional work” as defined in the CFR.
The CFR contributes part of the legal
definition of a profession. The body of legal precedents (court
cases) establish a slightly different but complementary
definition. According to legal precedents, a profession has:
A requirement for extensive learning and training
A code of ethics imposing standards higher than
those normally tolerated in the marketplace
A disciplinary system for professionals who breach
A primary emphasis on social responsibility over
strictly individual gain, and a corresponding duty of its
members to behave as members of a disciplined and honorable
A prerequisite of a license prior to admission to
How well does software rate according to
In Search of a Software Engineering Profession
Gary Ford and Norman E. Gibbs of the
Software Engineering Institute identified eight elements of a
A professional’s development typically follows the progression
shown in Figure 11-2.
Professional development follows most or
all of these basic steps in all well-established professions.
Initial Professional Education.
Professionals generally begin their professional life by
completing a university program in their chosen field—medical
school, engineering school, law school, and so on.
Accreditation. University programs
are accredited by oversight bodies that determine whether each
program provides adequate education. This ensures that, as long
as professionals graduate from accredited programs, they will
start their professional lives with the knowledge they need to
perform effectively. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and
Technology (ABET) oversees engineering programs in the U.S. and
the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB) oversees
engineering programs in Canada.
Skills Development. For most
professions, education alone is not sufficient to develop full
professional capabilities. Nascent professionals need practice
applying their knowledge before they are prepared to take
primary responsibility for performing work in their field.
Physicians have a three-year residency. Certified Public
Accountants (CPAs) must work one year for a board-approved
organization before receiving their licenses. Professional
Engineers must have at least four years of work experience.
Requiring some kind of apprenticeship ensures that people who
enter a profession have practice performing work at a
satisfactory level of competence.
Certification. After completion of
education and skills development, a professional is required to
pass one or more exams that ensure the person has attained a
minimum level of knowledge. Doctors take board exams.
Accountants take CPA exams. Professional engineers take a
Fundamentals of Engineering exam at college graduation time and
then take an engineering specialty exam about four years later.
Some professions require recertification from time to time.
Licensing. Licensing is similar to
certification except that it is mandatory instead of voluntary
and administered by a governmental authority.
Professional Development. Many
professionals are required to keep their professional education
current. Ongoing professional education maintains or improves
workers’ knowledge and skills after they begin professional
practice. Professional development requirements tend to be
strongest in professions where there is a rapidly changing body
of technical knowledge. Medicine is perhaps the most notable
because of the constant improvements in drugs, therapies,
medical equipment, and diagnosis and treatment procedures. After
a professional’s initial education and skills development are
complete, this requirement helps to ensure a minimum competency
level throughout the professional’s career.
Professionals see themselves as part of a community of
like-minded individuals who put their professional standards
above their individual self-interest or their employer’s
self-interest. In the beginning, professional societies usually
promote the exchange of knowledge, and over time their function
evolves to include defining certification criteria, managing
certification programs, establishing accreditation standards,
and defining codes of ethics and disciplinary action for
violations of those codes.
Code of Ethics. Each profession has
a code of ethics to ensure that its practitioners behave
responsibly. The code states not just what its practitioners
actually do, but what they should do. Professionals can be
ejected from their professional societies or lose their license
to practice for violating the code of ethics. Adherence to a
recognized code of conduct helps professionals feel they belong
to a well-regarded community, and enforcement of ethics
standards helps maintain a minimum level of conduct.
In addition to the eight elements
identified by Ford and Gibbs, many professions exhibit a ninth
characteristic that applies to organizations rather than
Organizational Certification. In
many professions, not only must individuals be certified, their
organizations must be certified. Accounting firms are peer
reviewed. Hospitals are accredited, as are universities. For
fields as complex as accounting, education, and medicine,
organizational certification is a response to the reality that
individual competence is not sufficient to guarantee adequate
levels of professional service; organizational characteristics
can have as much influence as individuals’ characteristics.
Ford and Gibbs point out that many
nonprofessional occupations exhibit some small number of these
elements. For example, the state of California requires licenses
for custom upholsterers, amateur boxers, private investigators,
and mule racing jockeys, but it doesn’t require most of the
other elements of a profession for those occupations. For all
common professions, nearly all of the elements exist.
Ford and Gibbs defined several levels of
maturity for each of the elements of a profession.
Nonexistence. The element simply
Ad Hoc. The element exists, but only
in isolated, uncoordinated instances.
Established. The element exists and
is clearly identified with a specific profession. (Ford and
Gibbs use the word “specific,” but I find that confusing.)
Maturing. The element has existed
for many years and is actively maintained and improved by some
A mature profession is one whose elements have reached the
maturing stage. Of course, “maturity” is a moving target. Some
of the specific elements that seemed mature 30 years ago don’t
seem mature today, and some elements that seem mature today will
not seem mature 30 years from now.
Table 11-1 describes the maturity of the software engineering
profession. The profession is mostly in the Established stage,
with some areas lagging and some moving into Maturity. More
details about the entries in the table are discussed throughout
Table 11-1. Maturity of the
elements of the software engineering profession.
Ad Hoc and Established. Bachelor’s degrees in computer
science, electrical engineering, mathematics, and so on
are the common preparation for entry into the
profession. Dozens of master’s degree programs in
software engineering exist. Numerous undergraduate
programs have been launched in the past few years, but
few students have completed those programs so far.
Established. Accreditation guidelines are currently
being defined by a working group from the IEEE Computer
Society and the ACM but have not yet been implemented.
Established. Guidelines have been developed for the
skills needed by a software engineer to enter the
Established. Commercial vendors such as Microsoft,
Novell, and Oracle have provided technology-related
certification programs for many years. Since 2002, the
IEEE Computer Society has offered a Certified Software
Development Professional Certificate for general
software engineering credentials.
The state of Texas licenses professional software
engineers under a statute passed in 1998. The provinces
of British Columbia and Ontario began registering
professional software engineers in 1999.
moving toward Established. Some organizations have
published professional development guidelines. For
examples, see the IEEE Computer Society’s continuing
education guidelines at www.computer.org/certification/
and Construx Software’s guidelines at
Established, moving toward Maturing. The IEEE Computer
Society, the ACM, and other professional societies
exist. These societies (especially the IEEE) explicitly
state that they represent software engineering. They do
not yet offer the full range of products and services
needed to support software engineers as professionals.
They cannot discipline violators of the software
engineering code of ethics.
Established. The ACM and the IEEE Computer Society have
adopted a code of ethics specifically for software
engineers. The code is not yet widely respected or
adopted within industry.
Established, moving toward Maturing. The Software
Engineering Institute has defined a Software Capability
Maturity Model, which it actively maintains and
improves. The model has been used to assess more than
1,500 organizations since 1987. It is not applied
universally. ISO 9000-9004 certification is widely
adopted, especially in Europe.
Through the Pillars
Software engineering does not fully meet
the definition of a profession at this time. Widely available
initial education is just beginning to emerge. Certification
became available only in 2002. Licensing is available to only a
tiny fraction of current software workers. A code of ethics
exists, but it isn’t enforced. Much work is being done, however,
to accelerate the movement of software engineering into the
Established and Maturing stages.
If we apply Bacon’s scientific method to
software engineering, we can see the three steps we need to help
software engineering reach maturity.
Purge your mind of prejudices. The
software industry needs to kick its addiction to code-and-fix
development, a prejudice that has a long track record of
benefiting no one.
Collect observations and experiences
systematically. A few organizations have begun collecting
data on the effectiveness of their development practices and
evaluating which practices make them most successful. Some have
achieved dramatic results. Other organizations need to follow.
Stop, survey what you have seen, and
draw initial conclusions. This book presents some initial
Software development is at a major decision
point. We can stay safe in our code-and-fix harbor, not
venturing past the Pillars of Hercules and not achieving the
significant gains that have already been discovered by software
engineering explorers. Or we can boldly venture toward a new
profession of software engineering and begin colonizing a new
world of higher productivity, lower costs, shorter schedules,
and better quality.
 Adapted from Cem Kaner, “Computer
Malpractice,” Software QA, Volume 3, no. 4, 1997,
 From Gary Ford and Norman E.
Gibbs, “A Mature Profession of Software Engineering,”
SEI, CMU, CMU/SEI-96-TR-004, January 1996.
 Adapted from Gary Ford and Norman
E. Gibbs, “A Mature Profession of Software Engineering,”
SEI, CMU, CMU/SEI-96-TR-004, January 1996.
material is (c) 2004 by Steven
C. McConnell. All Rights Reserved.