Restoring Engineering in Software Engineering

Posted on November 10, 2018 by Marko Dimjašević

Courtesy of Mark Bonica

Software has become ubiquitous. It’s all around us and in us. It is in our pockets, in cars, airplanes, stock exchanges, our bodies, our offices and in lots of other places. As a computer scientist and a programmer I’ve worked in aeronautics, computer security, finance and automotive industry and I can say that software engineering is a mess. The Atlantic demonstrates this point rather thoroughly in an interesting piece on the state of the software engineering profession. I agree with the article and here I will briefly tie this to what I see to be a solution, split into four parts: 1) the licensing of professional software engineers, 2) a requisite degree in computer science, 3) mandatory formal methods in software development, and 4) all software should be free as in freedom.

The licensing of professional software engineers

The licensing is needed so that we have a common standard of what are minimums to become a software engineer. The impact that software has on our everyday lives is too great to be in the hands of those without a license. Many lives have been lost due to errors in software and more will be lost. We need to do all we can to minimise such unfortunate events in the future, and requiring a license to be a software engineer is a great step in that direction. Having such a license would be a great responsibility, which could also be taken away from an engineer if they wouldn’t adhere to principles set by the field. It is appalling to imagine what the world would look like if we didn’t expect doctors, lawyers and architects to have a license.

A requisite degree in computer science

Today anyone can be a professional programmer. They don’t even have to be an engineer. As expected, bad practices take place in software development, which has negative consequences for software users. It ought to be mandatory to have a university degree in computer science to be a professional programmer. To program, one has to approach this task in a systematic way, relying on knowledge of giants that came before them. University is a place where a student is guided in a systematic way in accumulating, expanding and refining their knowledge and skills, all based on the common wealth of knowledge the field has acquired.

Mandatory formal methods in software development

Far too many programmers see programming and mathematics as two disparate fields. Such programers don’t see much utility of mathematics in programming. Yet mathematics is the best tool we will ever have in programming. Even more so, thanks to the Curry-Howard isomorphism, we know that mathematical proofs are in direct correspondence with computer programs. Mathematics, and in particular formal methods, should be taught at universities and required in professional software development.

All software should be free as in freedom

As Lawrence Lessig put it in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, code is law. Those who control the code are in position of power. To avoid subjugating software users, all software has to be free as in freedom. Software users wouldn’t be passive consumers anymore; they would have a chance to engage with what controls their surroundings. If all software was free and thus available for others to inspect, programmers wouldn’t be incentivised to sweep under the rug their bad practices and bad code. Fewer software errors would go unnoticed. Finally, students and professionals would have a plethora of good examples to learn from.

If the four proposals were to be adopted, only then we could talk about “engineering” as in software engineering.