Friday, 31 August 2012

In which a discipline seems not so impossible to define

At work, I’ve been trying for a while to do to things:

  1. Discover what $EMPLOYER considers to be “Software Engineering” at the next pay grade above mine, and
  2. Satisfy those requirements.

Every time I think about it, though, I’m revisited by my internal conflict over the title Software Engineer. I am not a Professional Engineer. I am not a trained engineer; I took exactly one course in “software engineering” in university, and it was a crash course in Scrum. So really, calling myself a Software Engineer, and trying to advocate for being called as such seems like attempting something between deceit and fraud.

This isn’t to say that engineering principles and practices can’t be applied to the discipline of software design and development. It absolutely can, and in most commercial cases, should. Part of the difficulty is that software development, and thus, the attempt to derive a working definition of Software Engineering, is still quite young. Not much younger than aerospace engineering, which is quite young, and quite well defined. Professional Engineering organisations are still at odds about whether or not they’re willing to license Software Engineers, because it’s still staggeringly hard to pin down exact what constitutes Software Engineering. So, the title of Software Engineer goes on uncontrolled and unchecked, as long as software engineers don’t call themselves Professional Engineers (unless they already are, from another engineering discipline).

I suspect that a large part of the problem is that software engineering is typically taught in university as a single course; maybe two. Every discipline of engineering recognised by P.Eng. organisations is taught as a four-year degree. Clearly, there’s a disconnect here.

Then, I got to thinking, could software engineering be taught as a four-year degree? What courses would be taught in this degree? What skills and disciplines have I learned, formally or informally, that have made me a better software developer? Certainly this curriculum would require a good foundation in computer science; many first- and second-year courses could be shared with CS. But then time would need to be spent on all the practices that help software to be written according to engineering principles and practices.

The current, most obvious, example is test-driven development. My group has been challenged by our manager to take what we learned in that TDD course to heart, and really try to apply it to our work. And I’ve been trying to do just that. I spent a day and a half refactoring code I’d written earlier that week in order to make it testable. In just one day, I’d done enough to establish 58% line coverage in unit tests. Trying to get the rest seemed like “not worth it” because the specific task should only be roughly a one-time-use process, and anyway, is already integration-tested and spot-check verified to be working correctly. But the refactoring-for-better-testing exercise was a useful reminder of what TDD provides.

Since then, there have been a couple of bugs reported by our QA team that I’ve had to hunt down. In the spirit of TDD as if you meant it, I stopped myself from trying to diagnose the issue and model the solution in my head, and just wrote a simple test that would fail in the presence of the bug. Then I went hunting for the root cause.

Before our morning scrum, it was staring me in the face, and I had a decision to make, of how to implement the fix. With a decision in place, more tests, in different places, because of how I wanted to implement that fix. Then back into the code to make the tests pass.

It ended up being a bit more complex than I’d originally expected (and I’d judged it as being reasonably complex), and took a day to really, properly, nail everything down to satisfy the requirements that weren’t being fulfilled. But the solution is one with thorough unit tests, that handle the full range of possible inputs (as well as some CANTHAPPENs), so I can state with confidence that the solution is robust, and thorough, and that it won’t fail in adverse situations.

These are engineering principles. I think it’s reasonable to posit that test-driven development could be taught as a part of a university degree in Software Engineering. But could you really spend an entire course teaching Test Driven Development (or whatever name it would have on a university timetable)? You could.

The course that we had was two weeks. Three days “in class”, and our team split into two groups that worked, with the instructor, for three days each of, essentially, labs. These were still very teachable, because they were full of real-life examples—the very code that we work with every day. At any rate, each developer got six working days, about seven hours each, spent learning Test Driven Development. Six working days of seven hours is, if you do the math, forty-two hours. The typical university course is three hours per week, for thirteen weeks, for a total of thirty-nine hours.

Suddenly, the possibilities open up for what could comprise a four-year degree in Software Engineering. Consider that any intensive, multi-day, all-day course you take as a professional can map to university credit courses if its length can be measured in whole weeks, one course per week. Suddenly, the notion of establishing a licensing program for Software Engineers that is on par with every other discipline of Professional Engineering looks feasible.

So if you were planning a curriculum, what would you put on it?

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