Software Engineering

A colleague of mine sent me an article by Tom DeMarco, one of the pioneers of structured analysis and also a strong believer in software engineering processes. Previously advocating metrics, metrics and more metrics in the past, he has come to realise that software engineering is rather a misnomer. In one sense it is engineering but in another sense, it is not. After decades of invaluable experience, he has come to one conclusion:

For the past 40 years, for example, we’ve tortured ourselves over our inability to finish a software project on time and on budget. But as I hinted earlier, this never should have been the supreme goal. The more important goal is transformation, creating software that changes the world or that transforms a company or how it does business.

Since I have also been writing code for a couple of decades since my humble beginnings with LOGO and BASIC, I have to say that I am of the opinion that it is very difficult to control the process of software creation – and it is a creative process, no doubt about it. However, as an engineer, I do believe that metrics is useful but only after the fact. What I mean to say is that metrics are only useful in documenting failures.

It is silly to try to control software creation during its inception and conception. You just need to hire the best people, give them the best tools and then hope for the best. Project managers who try to micro-manage the project will invariably fail because of the nature of the metrics used – they try to attribute success to certain values. Unfortunately, the success of a software rarely depends on the number of lines of code maintained, nor does it depend on the number of faults found.

After a project has come to a finish – and when I say finished, I mean that the people involved have come to a unanimous decision that they are happy with the state of the product at the time – that is when software metrics can be used to measure certain things. For example, it could be useful to measure individual contributions to the code base and identify good managers. It could also possibly measure the number of significant changes made to base code.

Anyway, I think that the video below is as good a metric as any for measuring software quality. I like the fact that the contributors seem to come in waves. I wonder if it correlates with real-world events in any way.

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Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

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