Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Tuesday, November 5, 2019

On exploding boilers

Throughout our history, it has always been standardisation of components that has enabled creations of greater complexity.

This quote, from Simon Wardley’s finding a path, reminded me of the software industry’s relationship with interchangeable parts.

Brad Cox, in both Object-Oriented Programming: an Evolutionary Approach and Superdistribution, used physical manufacturing analogies (to integrated circuits, and to rifles) to invoke the concept of a “software industrial revolution” that would allow end users to assemble off-the-shelf parts to solve their problems. His “software ICs” built on ideas expressed at least as early as 1968 by Doug McIlroy. Joe Armstrong talked about a universal function registry, so that if someone writes sin/1 everybody else can use it.

Of course we have a lot of reusable components in software engineering now, and we can thank the Free Software movement at least as much as any paradigm of organising programming instructions. CTAN, CPAN, and later repositories act as the “component catalogues” that Cox discussed. If you want to make a computer do something, you can probably find an npm module or a Ruby gem that does most of the work for you. The vast majority of such components have free licenses, it’s rare to pay for a reusable component.

The extent to which they’re “standard parts”, on the model of interchangeable nuts and bolts or integrated circuits, is debatable. Let’s say that you download a package from the NPM. We know that you use it by calling require (or maybe import)…but what does that give you? An object? A constructor? A regular function? Does it run anything as a result of calling require? Does it work in your node/ionic/electron/etc. context? Is it even a lump of regular javascript, or is it a Real, or to have access to a JVM, or some other niche requirement?

Whatever these “standard parts” and however they’re used, you’re probably still doing a bunch of coding. These parts will do computery stuff, or maybe generic behaviour like authentication, date UIs, left-padding strings and the like. Usually we still have to develop ours apps as “engineered” software projects with significant levels of custom coding, to make those “standard parts” actually solve a useful problem. There are still people working for retail companies maintaining online store applications across the four corners of the globe, despite the fact that globes don’t have corners, these things all work the same way, and the risks associated with getting them wrong are significant.

Perhaps this is because software is a distinct thing, and we can never treat it like industrial product manufacturing.

Perhaps this is because our ambition always runs out ahead of our capability. Whatever we can reproducibly build, we’d like to be building something greater.

Perhaps this is because we’re still in the cottage industry stage, where we don’t yet know whether or how to standardise the parts, and occasionally the boilers explode.

posted by Graham at 17:56  

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