by Leon Rosenshein

Real Engineering

Here’s a question for you. Are you a programmer, developer, computer scientist, software engineer, hardware engineer, or something entirely different? Maybe you’re an artist working in the medium of bits? A data wrangler? Some combination of all of these, depending on the day and the task at hand?

For the last 50 years or so people have been trying to figure out if software development was an art or a science. Or was it engineering? When I was in college there was no such thing as a degree in software engineering. There were specialized electrical engineers that built computers, there were computer scientists that tried to figure out what to do with them, and the rest of us engineers that used them. The math department in the School of Arts and Science had a lot to say too, particularly around formal logic and correctness. But for most of us who were writing programs the computers were tools to do a job. Sometimes we wrote programs to help other people do their jobs, but writing code was almost always in service of some other task. And we treated it that way. Just get it done. Small groups, late nights.

Then I got out into the real world and something changed. I became a “software” engineer instead of a Mechanical and Aerospace engineer. But really, nothing else changed. Then I went to work for a game company, and instead of building software to do something, we built software to sell. And we had deadlines. And we missed them. So we tried to engineer harder. And we still missed our dates. Then I went to work for Microsoft. And they really engineered hard. Waterfall development. Months of planning. Then start doing. Still missed our deadlines a lot, but at least we saw it coming. But it was engineering. Requirements. Design. Plan. Build.

Then came Scrum and Agile and Extreme. Throw all that planning out. Just do something. Figure out the goal along the way. Don’t worry about done, just move fast and adjust as you go. We did ship things more often, but big changes got hard and we never really knew where we were going. It sure didn’t feel like engineering.

So the debate continued. Is it art or science? Craftsmanship or Engineering? Lots of people have thought about it and talked about it. I say it’s engineering. Engineering is not about doing the “perfect” thing. There is no perfect thing. It’s about tradeoffs and dealing with uncertainty and doing the best you can to meet the goals and priorities with what you have available. And one of the best explanations of not only that journey, but where we are now and how we can get even better at the process of what we do, comes from Glen Vanderburg in his Real Software Engineering talk. It’s about an hour long (45 minutes at 1.5x), but well worth the time.