Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Software Development -- Why we need software engineers

I frequently see posts by some folks talking about how software development is the realm of the elite and erudite, requiring much training and arcane knowledge. Somehow, these people seem to think this is a bad thing, or an odd thing that is in need of remediation. It doesn't. And there are many simple analogies that can help demonstrate why.

The most basic one goes as follows. As a business owner, you have an office probably, or a place of business. This place has electrical systems, and plumbing, and a building with doors and a roof and other such infrastructure. If your sink gets clogged, you might pour some drano down it and try to unclog it. Anything beyond that - you call a plumber. If a roof leaks, you call a roofer. If your door needs fixing, you call a carpenter. Without training, you can't just make a new door, or install a new sink, or do a major roof repair. These things require skill and training to do well, and in some cases even at all. You don't know which tools you need, and you certainly don't own them. As a business person, you also understand that your time is much better invested in doing things you are an expert at doing, and using that revenue to pay someone who is an expert in plumbing to do that rather than wasting ten times the effort of our own time trying to do it yourself. It's called delegation, and whilst I'm no Harvard MBA, I'm pretty sure it's a major component in how you make a business successful. What on earth would posses you to believe that given you have zero training and knowledge of computer systems, that you could whip up a piece of software that was anything more than the software equivalent of drano down a sink, or duct tape on a pipe?! Or to the people writing these kinds of articles, what on earth would posses you to think that what you do is any less difficult than what many professionals do, and is something that any ordinary Joe could manage with little or no training? Software deals with many highly complex interlocking problems and requires training and specialized knowledge to do, and certainly to do well. You have to know about the tools that exist, and you have to know how to use them. For a software engineer who does this full time and then some, the range of tools and techniques available is dizzying, far more than is available to a carpenter or a plumber. The notion that a regular Joe should be able to write software, of any kind, anything really beyond basic spreadsheet macros is ridiculous. For decades, people have been trying to make these magical 4GLs that allow you to plug big blocks of awesome together to make systems that get things done. To date, they have all failed to one degree or another.

I believe that most people, even programmers often have little idea about what we actually do every day. What we do everyday is mostly not engineering. That's right, I'm a programmer, and what I do everyday is mostly NOT engineering. There is an engineering component, but I believe that most of what I do every day is philosophy.

Programming is a discipline that is more akin to philosophy that it is to engineering, and I believe that this is often true for higher mathematics and higher physics also, though I'm not in those fields, so I may be wrong.

What we do everyday is reason about the universe around us, and then turn it into a model that the computer executes. Most of the programming we do is essentially a simulacrum. It's a mirror of the real word, defined by us, the philosopher and executed by a machine, the computer. How good our software is, is typically far more to do with how well we can reason about our problem domain and far less about how good an engineer we are. Any programmer who has seem code written by Math people has an idea about this. From an engineering perspective, the code is often pretty terrible, but the things it can do are amazing, and us lowly engineers often don't have the mathematical knowledge and understanding to reason about it, and thusly can't understand it. The mathematicians software is brilliant because she knew a language with which to describe the universe that was very advanced, and could precisely describe that universe back to a machine to do interesting things with it.

Why do you think people do postgraduate work in science on a thing called a PhD, it's not a Doctor of Science, it's a Doctor of Philosophy.

To describe our model of the universe to the computer, we need engineering, and that is honestly the part that is pretty tedious after you've been around the wheel a few times. The languages we user are arcane because a computer has to know precisely what to do. There can be no ambiguity to a computer, and when there are ambiguities in our code, that's one major cause of bugs. Humans are very bad at describing things precisely, but it's the only way a computer can function and so we have a disjoin. We also have a disjoin because our model of the universe is typically very small, and only represents a very very small part of the universe. And sometimes the universe we're modeling is centered around things that only exist as constructs in human conception, like money. They don't have solid rules and have weird exception cases and often don't make a lot of sense from a purely logical perspective. They are models of human behavior, which humans who study psychology and neurology don't even fully understand, so what chance as a software developer do we have, trying to describe it for a computer to understand?! The raw fact of the matter is that that model is incomplete and imperfect. No amount of hand-wringing is ever going to make it less than that because we ourselves don't have a perfect model of the universe, and certainly not of human behavior, all we have are approximations.

I also am coming to believe that engineering, the actual implementation of our models is a secondary concern to the philosophy. That is to say regardless of what languages and methodologies we use, if our fundamental model of the universe, the shapes of the pieces of our simulacrum we defined in our mind are a poor fit, no amount of brilliant engineering will make the software good. The most elegant code that doesn't serve the user is ultimately not going to be useful and have a long life beyond being a teaching aid. The most ugly code that serves the user well, is going to have a long life, even if it is the bane of the engineers maintaining it, and we've all worked on that kind of code in our career. That legacy app that is just so critical to the business that it can't be left to die, despite it being the most horrible piece of code ever conceived? That little gem, is a wonder of philosophy, but a travesty of engineering, and guess what, it's value as a model as a machine as a tool for the business outweighs it's ugliness as a work of engineering.

So I would call programmers to be philosophers and historians first, and engineers second. Take the time to gain a better understanding of the world around us first, learn about what other programmers have done before you and the challenges they faced second, and then be a syntax god and engineer third. And most of all, what we do, day in and day out is hard. It's part philosophy, part art, part music, part mathematics and part engineering. To be good at programming, you have to be at least capable in all of those disciplines, and whilst engineering might be third, it's still really important. Not many people have the capacity to be cross-disciplined to that level, programmers have to be, and that quite frankly, makes us pretty special, and that's okay!

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