Engineering can provide a life
of genuine satisfaction in many ways, especially through
ministering in a practical manner to the needs and
welfare of mankind.
— Vannevar Bush
Engineers are saddled with much the same
stereotype as computer programmers. They are regarded as boring
and dull, and yet these boring and dull engineers are
responsible for some of the most exciting developments in the
world today. Putting a man on the moon, viewing the outer
reaches of space from the Hubble Space Telescope, flying on
modern jet aircraft, driving coast to coast in cars that operate
nearly flawlessly, connecting to Internet sites throughout the
world, enjoying theater-quality video presentations at
home—these technological miracles are all predominately
engineering accomplishments, the practical application of
Need for Engineering
Historically, professional engineering has
been established in response to threats to public safety.
Although we take the safety of modern bridges for granted, in
the 1860s American bridges were failing at the rate of 25 or
more per year.
Bridge failures and the loss of life they caused precipitated
creation of a stricter engineering approach to bridge design and
construction. In Canada, engineering folklore holds that the
collapse of the Quebec City bridge in 1907 catalyzed
establishment of higher standards in all branches of Canadian
engineering, which is symbolized today in the iron ring
(I’ll describe that ceremony in more detail in Chapter 15.)
Engineers in Texas were licensed only after a boiler explosion
in an elementary school killed more than 300 children in 1937.
The part that caused the explosion in 1937 has been replaced
today by software.
Engineering differs from other professions
in that doctors, dentists, public accountants, and lawyers
generally provide their services to specific individuals or, in
some cases, to specific corporations. Engineers tend to design
things rather than provide services to individuals. Their
responsibility is more often to society than to specific people.
In this sense, software developers are more like engineers than
they are like other kinds of professionals.
Software hasn’t yet had its Quebec City
bridge or its Texas elementary school boiler. But the potential
is real. As any reader of the Forum on Risks to the Public in
the Use of Computers and Related Systems
knows, software has already been responsible for many
multi-million dollar losses, ranging from the ridiculous to the
deadly. Tsutomu Shimomura parked on February 29, 1992 at a San
Diego airport parking lot. When he returned 6 days later, his
parking bill was $3,771. The parking software didn’t recognize
February 29 as a valid date.
In January 1990 approximately five million telephone calls were
blocked over a nine-hour period because of a software error. The
first space shuttle launch was delayed for two days because of a
subtle programming error. The Mariner I space probe to Venus was
lost because of an error in transcribing a guidance equation
into software. In London, a computer dispatch system for
ambulances was placed into operation before it was ready,
collapsed completely, and caused delays as long as 11 hours. As
many as 20 deaths were attributed to the new ambulance dispatch
system. Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by the USS Vincennes’
Aegis system in 1988, killing 290 people. The error was
initially attributed to operator error, but later some experts
attributed the incident to the poor design of Aegis’s user
Engineering and Art
Engineering’s use of mathematics and
science exposes it to the criticism that it is dry—that it saps
the artistic elements out of structures that are engineered. The
same criticism has been applied to software engineering. How
true is this criticism? Does engineering exclude aesthetics?
Far from being antithetical to aesthetics,
engineering is largely concerned with all aspects of design,
including aesthetic aspects. Its designs aren’t just limited to
shapes and colors. Engineers design everything from electronic
circuits to load-bearing beams to vehicles that land on the
moon. As Samuel C. Florman says in The Existential
Pleasures of Engineering, “Creative design is the central
mission of the professional engineer.”
Consider a comparison of two well-known
buildings, the Reims Cathedral and the Sydney Opera House. The
Reims Cathedral, shown in Figure 13-1, was completed about 1290;
the Sydney Opera House, shown in Figure 13-2, in 1973. The Reims
Cathedral was designed to use materials whose properties were
understood (more or less) at the time.
Reims Cathedral, Reims, France. An example
of art without very well developed engineering.
The Sydney Opera House was constructed 700
years after the Reims Cathedral. As you can see in Figure 13-2,
it’s stylistically quite different from the Reims Cathedral. Its
architects used modern materials such as steel and reinforced
concrete, and they employed engineering techniques including
computer modeling to determine how little material could safely
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia. An
example of the dependence of art upon engineering.
Which building you prefer is a matter of
taste, but which building can actually be built is a matter of
engineering. It would be possible for modern builders to
construct another Reims Cathedral, but it would not have been
possible for 13th century builders to construct a Sydney Opera
House. The reason the Sydney Opera House could not be built in
the 13th century was not a lack of art, but the lack of
engineering. We’ve all seen ugly buildings in which artistic
considerations lost a battle with engineering economy, or in
which aesthetics appear not to have been considered at all.
Engineering without art can be ugly, but art without engineering
may be impossible. Engineering does not constrain artistic
possibilities. The lack of engineering constrains
So it is with modern software systems. The
level of engineering prowess determines how large a software
system can be built successfully, how easy it will be to use,
how fast it will operate, how many errors it will contain, and
how well it will cooperate with other systems. Software includes
many aesthetic elements, and software developers have no lack of
artistic ambition. What we in the software industry sometimes
lack is the engineering techniques that enable us to realize
some of our grandest aesthetic aspirations.
Maturation of Engineering Disciplines
Disasters in older engineering fields have
precipitated the professionalization of engineering practices in
those fields. Of course, full-fledged engineering disciplines
can’t simply be willed into existence overnight. Mary Shaw at
Carnegie Mellon University has identified a progression that
fields go through before they reach the level of
professional engineering. Figure 13-3 summarizes this
The progression of a discipline from craft
to professional engineering. (Source: Adapted from “Prospects
for an Engineering Discipline of Software”)
In the craft stage, good work is
performed by talented amateurs. Craftsmen use intuition and
brute force to create their widgets, whether their widgets are
bridges, electric equipment, or computer programs. Some of their
work is intended for sale to the public, but most is created
solely for their own use. They have little or no concept of
large-scale production for external sale. Craftsmen tend to make
extravagant use of available materials. The field progresses
haphazardly; there’s no systematic way to educate or train other
craftsmen in the use of the most effective techniques.
Civil engineering (aqueduct and bridge
construction) in first century Rome was a discipline in its
craft stage, as was early computing in the 1950s and 1960s. Many
software projects today still make extravagant use of available
materials (staff time) and operate at the craft level.
At some point, the demand for the widgets
increases beyond what isolated craftsmen can provide, and demand
for greater production begins to influence the discipline. As
the folklore becomes better understood, it’s codified into
written heuristics and procedural rules.
In the commercial stage, workers
more carefully define the resources needed to support
production. The stage is marked by a stronger economic
orientation, and cost of goods may become an issue.
Practitioners are trained to ensure consistent quality of the
widgets they produce. Production procedures are systematically
refined by changing different parameters to see what works and
The Reims Cathedral was built at a time
when civil engineering was in its commercial stage. In software,
many commercial-stage organizations achieve respectable levels
of quality and productivity by making use of carefully selected,
well-trained personnel. They rely on familiar practices and
change them incrementally in pursuit of better products and
better project performance.
Some of the problems encountered by
commercial production can’t be solved via trial and error, and,
if the economic stakes are high enough, a corresponding science
will develop. As the science matures, it develops theories that
contribute to commercial practice, and this is the point at
which the field reaches the professional engineering
stage. At this point, progress arises from application of
scientific principles as well as from practical experimentation.
The practitioners working in the field at that point must be
well-educated in both the theory and practice of their
A Science for Software Development
Software science has been lagging behind
commercial software development for years. Extremely large
software systems were developed in the 1950s and 1960s,
including the Sage missile defense system, the Sabre
airline-reservation system, and IBM’s OS/360 operating system.
Commercial development of these large systems proceeded much
faster than supporting research did, but practical applications
advancing faster than science has been common in engineering.
The airfoil wing section that allows airplanes to fly was
invented just after it had been “proved” that no machine heavier
than air could fly.
The development of thermodynamics followed the invention of the
steam engine. When John Roebling designed the Brooklyn Bridge in
the 1860s, the strength of steel cables was not well understood,
and so he designed different parts of the bridge with safety
margins as high as 6 to 1. This safety margin was an engineering
judgment made in lieu of better theoretical knowledge.
The science that supports software
development isn’t as well defined as the physics that supports
civil engineering. In fact it isn’t even considered “natural
science.” It is what Herbert Simon calls a “science of
knowledge areas of computer science, mathematics, psychology,
sociology, and management science. A few software organizations
regularly apply theories from these areas to their projects, but
we are a long way from seeing universal application of these
sciences of the artificial to software projects.
But are we really asking software science
to provide the right things? For many classes of
applications—inventory management systems, payroll programs,
general ledger software, operating system design, database
management software, language compilers (the list is nearly
endless)—the same basic applications have been written so many
times that these systems shouldn’t require as much unique design
effort as they seem to need. Mary Shaw points out that in mature
engineering fields routine design involves solving familiar
problems and reusing large portions of prior solutions. Often
these “solutions” are codified in the form of equations,
analytical models, or prebuilt components. Unique design
challenges do present themselves from time to time, but the
bread and butter of engineering is the application of routine
design practices to familiar problems.
The software world is still in the process
of capturing many of its “solutions” in ways that are useful to
the average practitioner. Many software project artifacts are
potentially reusable, and many of them promise more potential to
improve quality and productivity than the most commonly reused
artifact, source code, does. Here is a short list of some
project artifacts that can be reused:
Architectures themselves and software design
Requirements themselves and requirements
User interface elements and user interface design
Estimates themselves and estimation procedures
Planning data, project plans, and planning
Test plans, test cases, test data, and test
Technical review procedures
Source code, construction procedures, and
Software configuration management procedures
Post-project reports and project-review procedures
Organizational structures, team structures, and
At present, few of these project artifacts
have been packaged into a form that the average organization can
Science has not yet provided software
development with a set of equations that describe how to run a
project successfully, or that describe how to produce successful
software products. Perhaps it never will. But science doesn’t
necessarily have to consist of formulas and mathematics. In
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,
Thomas Kuhn points out that a scientific paradigm can
consist of a set of solved problems. Reusable software project
artifacts are a set of solved problems—solved requirements
problems, design problems, planning problems, management
problems, and so on.
The Call of Engineering
Arthur C. Clarke said that “any
sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from
magic.” Software technology is sufficiently advanced, and the
general public is mystified by it. The public doesn’t understand
the safety risks posed by its software products or the financial
risks posed by its software projects. As high priests of this
powerful magic, software developers have a professional
responsibility to use their magic wisely.
The engineering approach to design and
construction has a track record of all but eliminating some of
the most serious risks to public safety while supporting some of
the most elevating expressions of the human spirit. Whether the
goal is safety, aesthetics, or economics, treating software as
an engineering discipline is an effective way to raise software
development to the level of a true profession.
Florman, Samuel C., The Existential Pleasures of
Engineering, 2d Ed., St. Martin’s Griffin: NY, 1994.
I call this “folklore” because several Canadian
professional engineers have independently told me that
the iron in the iron ring traditionally is thought to
come from the wreckage of the iron bridge that collapsed
in Quebec City in 1907. Published information about the
Canadian iron ring ceremony contains no mention of the
Quebec City bridge. The ceremony itself might contain
mention of this bridge, but it is a secret ceremony.
The New York Times, May 3, 1999.
Digest subscription to this forum is available by
e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or on Usenet at
All the examples in this paragraph come from Peter G.
Neumann, Computer-Related Risks, Reading, MA:
This image was obtained from IMSI’s MasterClipsİ/MasterPhotosİ
collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. East, San Rafael, CA
This image was obtained from IMSI’s MasterClipsİ/MasterPhotosİ
collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. East, San Rafael, CA
Shaw, Mary, “Prospects for an Engineering Discipline of
Software,” IEEE Software, November 1990, pp. 15f.
Christopher Alexander, quoted in Glass, Robert L.,
Software Creativity, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice
Hall PTR, 1994.
Simon, Herbert, The Sciences of the Artificial, 3d
Ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.
For more information, see Jones, Capers, 1994,
Assessment and Control of Software Risks, Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Yourdon Press, 1994.
Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions, 3d Ed., Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1996.
material is (c) 2004 by Steven
C. McConnell. All Rights Reserved.