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Does that thing you like doing actually work?

Genuine question. I’ve written before about Test-Driven Development, and I’m sure some of you practice it: can you show evidence that it’s better than (or, for that matter, evidence that it’s worse than) some other practice? Statistically significant evidence?

How about security? Can you be confident that there’s a benefit to spending any money or time on information security countermeasures? On what should it be spent? Which interventions are most successful? Can you prove that?

I am, of course, asking whether there’s any evidence in software engineering. I ask rhetorically, because I believe that there isn’t—or there isn’t a lot that’s in a form useful to practitioners. A succinct summary of this position comes courtesy of Anthony Finkelstein:

For the most part our existing state-of-practice is based on anecdote. It is, at its very best quasi-evidence-based. Few key decisions from the choice of an architecture to the configuration of tools and processes are based on a solid evidential foundation. To be truthful, software engineering is not taught by reference to evidence either. This is unacceptable in a discipline that aspires to engineering science. We must reconstruct software engineering around an evidence-based practice.

Now there is a discipline of Evidence-Based Software Engineering, but herein lies a bootstrapping problem that deserves examination. Evidence-Based [ignore the obvious jokes, it’s a piece of specific jargon that I’m about to explain] practice means summarising the significant results in scientific literature and making them available to practitioners, policymakers and other “users”. The primary tools are the systematic literature review and its statistics-heavy cousin, the meta-analysis.

Wait, systematic literature review? What literature? Here’s the problem with trying to do EBSE in 2012. Much software engineering goes on behind closed doors in what employers treat as proprietary or trade-secret processes. Imagine that a particular project is delayed: most companies won’t publish that result because they don’t want competitors to know that their projects are delayed.

Even for studies, reports and papers that do exist, they’re not necessarily accessible to the likes of us common programmers. Let’s imagine that I got bored and decided to do a systematic literature survey of whether functional programming truly does lead to fewer concurrency issues than object-oriented programming.[*] I’d be able to look at articles in the ACM Digital Library, on the ArXiv pre-print server, and anything that’s in Leamington Spa library (believe me, it isn’t much). I can’t read IEEE publications, the BCS Computer Journal, or many others because I can’t afford to subscribe to them all. And there are probably tons of journals I don’t even know about.

[*]Results of asking about this evidence-based approach to paradigm selection revealed that either I didn’t explain myself very well or people don’t like the idea of evidence mucking up their current anecdotal world views.

So what do we do about this state of affairs? Actually, to be more specific: if our goal is to provide developers with better access to evidence from our field, what do we do?

I don’t think traditional journals can be the answer. If they’re pay-to-read, developers will never see them. If they’re pay-to-write, the people who currently aren’t supplying any useful evidence still won’t.

So we need something lighter weight, free to contribute to and free to consume; and we probably need to accept that it then won’t be subject to formal peer review (in exactly the same way that Wikipedia isn’t).

I’ve argued before that a great place for this work to be done is the Free Software Foundation. They’ve got the components in place: a desire to prove that their software is preferable to commercial alternatives; public development projects with some amount of central governance; volunteer coders willing to gain karma by trying out new things. They (or if not them, Canonical or someone else) could easily become the home of demonstrable quality in software production.

Could the proprietary software developers be convinced to open up on information about what practices do or don’t work for them? I believe so, but it wouldn’t be easy. Iteratively improving practices is a goal for both small companies following Lean Startup and similar techniques, and large enterprises interested in process maturity models like CMMI. Both of these require you to know what metrics are important; to measure, test, improve and iterate on those metrics. This can be done much more quickly if you can combine your results from those of other teams—see what already has or hasn’t worked elsewhere and learn from that.

So that means that everyone will benefit if everyone else is publishing their evidence. But how do you bootstrap that? Who will be first to jump from a culture of silence to a culture of sharing, the people who give others the benefit of their experience before they get anything in return?

I believe that this is the role of the platform companies. These are the companies whose value lies not only in their own software, but in the software created by ISVs on their platforms. If they can help their ISVs to make better software more efficiently, they improve their own position in the market.