Wednesday 11 May 2016

Professionalism in Software Engineering

Yesterday, I attended a talk by Bob Martin on Professionalism in Code hosted by Software East at Redgate. I also spent considerable time beforehand working out whether it'd be unfair to introduce Bob as the "Donald Trump of Computer Programming". Sanity prevailed and I didn't. But I just wrote it up there, didn't I? D'oh.

Is the software engineering industry professional? As software engineering professionals we should have skill and good judgement. Does the software engineering industry have that?

Bob gave the famous example [PDF] of Knight Capital and Volkswagen, but there's many more (Therac-25, the F35 and The Chaos Report [PDF]). You could argue that the software industry is in meltdown and developer incompetence / poor judgement has cost the industry billions. I think you'd have a pretty convincing case! Or would you? There was no mention the other side - the tremendous advantages our haphazard industry has made to almost the whole planet (the Internet, mobile phones, communication).

Bob painted the nightmare scenario - regulation. Imagine some time from now, some bug somewhere (a missing ; even) results in a number of deaths. The nuclear reactor blows, the self-driving cars go made on a leap year and start running people over, the planes turn upside down when crossing the equator (etc). The natural result of this is the Government blames us (software developers) and starts to put some regulations in place. Again, this feels believable-ish.

But why hasn't it happened yet? Well, safety-critical systems are pretty regulated. See this lump [PDF trigger warning] from the FAA about how they do things. I'm not going to argue it's perfect, but it's demonstrably good enough to stop null pointers making things fall out the sky regularly.

So what should we do to prevent this threat of regulation? Well, we should:
  • Not ship shit!
  • Give reasonable estimates!
  • QA should find no bugs
  • Software should get better, not worse
  • Invest 20 hours per week in personal development
Most of this stuff is easy to agree. Of course we shouldn't ship shit - are you insane? Of course we should strive to write bug free code. If you want to explore these ideas more, Bob's book (The Clean Coder) covers the topics in much greater detail. It was a great talk and got the audience thinking.

Are these the right things to make the industry professional? Maybe. Maybe as an industry we should look at other areas:
There's a huge space for software engineers to explore about building professional quality software. We're not explored much yet. I'm certainly no historian, but I'd imagine professions like Medicine, Law and Engineering took more than 60 or so years to establish what good looked like.

The deliciously chaotic world of software engineering is going to continue for a while yet!