Thursday, September 25, 2008

Programming is Hard

I can remember my brother once remarking that "Programming is Hard", and I'm not sure he realised the importance and relevance of what he was saying.

On our large project - about 20 Java devs - I monitor the checkins and do some basic QA on them. The developers in this environment, who are apparently fairly good, still make school boy errors.

Fortunately we have hudson setup to do all the checks possible - checkstyle, pmd, findbugs and cpd - and so I can find most of the basic mistakes, like copy and pasted code for instance. But then often I find more complex issues, just bad design for example, and I've often thought about this issue.

I also maintain that computer programming is engineering. There is debate about this, but I think there are enough similiarities with "classic" engineering for it to be labelled engineering (I think it helps quality if you call it that).

Why then does computer programming not have the same aura that classic engineering has, and also the same obsession about quality...

Two reasons...

The first one is safety. When building a computer programming you're not building a bridge and thus you do not have to worry about people dieing if it fails. A "bug" in a bridge could prove very costly, not only in terms of money, but more importantly in terms of people's lives. There have been many instances when bridges have failed and their failure is put down the human error. Something that would have been called a "bug" in a computer program.

The second one is that the programming world is abstract. The result of this is that the world is a lot less limited. You're not limited by something physical when building a computer program. The result of this is that the barrier to entry is a lot lower, it's much easier to get into and also that it makes programming "easier" than other engineering. Easier in quotes because I think the problem we have with quality when building computing systems is because people think it is easier.

Programming with Quality is IMHO every bit as hard as building a bridge successfully or desigining and building an alarm system. If we want to produce quality we need to put as much effort into it as an qualified and certified engineer would put into building a bridge. We cannot think that our often mediocre, slap-dash efforts measure up.

Problem is, if you're reading this, you probably do see yourself as on a par with an Engineer.

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