Issue No. 05 - Sept.-Oct. (2013 vol. 30)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MS.2013.115
Forrest Shull , Fraunhofer Center for Experimental Software Engineering
What topics will software developers be talking about a year from now?
The fast-changing nature of our field is one of the things that make working in software so much fun—and so challenging. Grady Booch often writes in these pages about the way in which software has grown to underlie so much of our modern world. Michiel van Genuchten and Les Hatton in their Impact column describe how software has penetrated so many of the systems and services that we as consumers often take for granted—airliners, mass transit, and washing machines—where it lies hidden in plain sight. Meanwhile, many of our other authors frequently write about the enabling technologies that have allowed software to become so influential—the methods, tools, and practices that enable software developers to produce quality software that becomes embedded all over our world.
The joy and the challenge of my job as editor in chief is staying abreast of a broad swath of contemporary research and practice to make sure that we're featuring the right methods, tools, and practices in this magazine, the technologies that are relevant, important, and helpful to practicing software engineers in a variety of roles and across many different domains.
Some of the topics that I feel most strongly about have already been turned into special issues. For example, next-generation mobile software and new developments in programming languages will be featured soon, while software analytics can be found in the current issue. But looking further ahead is always important. One of the ways that I do this is with the help of our editorial and advisory board members. Members are invited to the boards based on their knowledge and visibility in the software engineering field, as well as their willingness and ability to contribute to the magazine. I manage the board composition to make sure that we have coverage of important industries, viewpoints, and types of software, so that the advice I get is as comprehensive as possible and representative of concerns from across our readership.
Once a year, the boards and I come together so that I can hear what's on the minds of experts in various sectors of the industry and to ensure that our content is on target going forward. We brainstorm as many different topics of interest as possible (and in a dynamic field such as ours, it's probably no surprise that we easily reach 50 or more topics), with all of us asking questions: What are we seeing as interesting themes in the domains in which we work? What are the “pain points” on which our clients and collaborators most need help? Then we narrow these items down to a short list of our top priority areas, which provides me with guidance that I can apply in selecting department editors, identifying special issue topics, and attracting new authors.
It's always of great interest to me to see what comes out of this process, and I thought that you, our readers, would find some value in it as well. I'll list a few of the top issues on our minds when we met this July. I recognize that, unlike what I do in most of my columns, this installment is going to present more questions than answers—but I find the insight into the worries that are on thought leaders' minds is an important source of information, and I hope you will too.
Although the practice of refactoring is hardly new, it seems to be taking on additional relevance these days. One reason for this is the increasing interest in technical debt, which is refocusing many developers on the questions of how and when to refactor their software so as to deliver the most business value over the lifetime of a project and make the right technical trade-offs.
As with many of the other topics that the boards and I came up with, refactoring becomes more difficult and raises many technical issues that aren't well understood when applied in practice to the types of systems that developers work with today. Large-scale and high-complexity systems are difficult enough, to be sure, but polyglot and integrated systems make the trade-offs and “optimal” outcomes even harder to parse. Also relevant to this discussion are explorations of the effectiveness of code, design, and architectural “smells” for detecting when portions of the system should be refactored. There are a lot of intuitive-sounding ideas here, but which are effective and for which types of systems? Can experiences and case studies help software engineers further develop their skillsets for effective refactoring?
A Fresh Look at the Science of Measurement
In grad school, I once took a class with a professor of artificial intelligence (AI) who said that, in his view at least, AI too often got an undeservedly bad reputation as a research field. Anytime an effective solution was developed for a particular problem, it was spun off and became its own field, while the things left under the umbrella of AI were the hardest and most intractable problems remaining in the realm of basic research. I often feel that the same has happened to software metrics: as an abstract field, some critics look at metrics as an unexciting area that can be divorced from their needs. And yet, metrics that have proven successful are woven into day-to-day practice: any project has to do some estimation of schedule and cost (and an array of techniques exist that are both usable and useful), agile teams are often skilled with using measures of velocity to steer project decisions, and many organizations have their own toolsets that provide useful measurement-based insights.
Given all of the exciting work going on in software analytics, this seems an opportune time to revisit measurement science and take a new look at where metrics have already successfully embedded themselves into software practice, becoming so intuitive that we rarely notice them. It would also be interesting to examine the extent to which we can make truly evidence–based decisions during software development to maximize our chances of success. The tension between collecting nonintrusive metrics and meaningful metrics, as always, is relevant here. Technical debt, another topic of an earlier special issue, is also highly related as the research community and tool vendors increasingly analyze code and process metrics to detect debt that might be accumulating unintentionally and to provide triggers to alert software developers when debt might be getting out of hand.
Ongoing challenges include the application of metrics to contemporary technologies and at contemporary scales—for example, how accurate can we be in estimating and monitoring performance in the cloud?
Designing the User Experience
As software and systems become more ubiquitous, users have to deal with ever-larger amounts of information and a multitude of capabilities. Poorly designed interfaces and poorly integrated systems lead users to unpleasant experiences with technology or “IT overload,” which prevent effective use of available options. A constellation of related questions comes up around how to address this problem: Whose job is it to consider the user experience during software design—and what tools can be leveraged to help do it well? How do you train developers to design software effectively? Can software help address the problem itself—for example, by having interfaces with some intelligence behind them?
As if all of that wasn't complicated enough, can we reason about the composability of the user experience—that is, if we know something about component usability, can we reason about how easy or cumbersome a user will find it to work with the whole system? And how do requirements engineers and software developers handle unusual (but increasingly common) nonfunctional requirements related to the user experience, such as a computer game that should be “fun” or “pleasurable?”
The Effective Software Manager
Not that anyone has recently stopped worrying about how to be an effective manager of software projects, but given recent trends, this might be a particularly good time to bring together some thoughts on what it means to manage well under current conditions. A particularly interesting question is what effective strategies exist for combining bottom-up empowerment with top-down management, which is certainly related to the question of how to manage effectively in an agile context. But we need not be limited to agile teams: What recently emerged best practices do managers use on long-lived, mission- or safety-critical projects to safeguard users as well as the large investment in cost?
A recent line of research within software engineering focuses on making sure that teams' technical decisions align with business value—but how well are the resulting methods working in practice, and are they making their way into the hands of practicing managers? How do managers deal with multicultural issues on large, geographically distributed project teams?
As I mentioned, these are just a few of the priorities we identified, but I'd be happy to hear from you, our readers, if you have hot topics of your own or want to react to the ideas here. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many thanks to our board members who participated in this year's discussion: Ayse Bener (Ryerson University), Anita Carleton (Software Engineering Institute), Hakan Erdogmus (Kalemun Research), Magnus Larsson (ABB), Steve McConnell (Construx Software), Grigori Melnik (Microsoft), Ipek Ozkaya (Software Engineering Institute), Rafael Prikladnicki (Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul), Linda Rising (independent consultant), Wolfgang Strigel (independent consultant), Girish Suryanarayana (Siemens), Michiel van Genuchten (mt:onyx), Adam Welc (Oracle Labs), James Whittaker (Microsoft), Rebecca Wirfs-Brock (Wirfs-Brock Associates), and Olaf Zimmermann (University of Applied Sciences, Rapperswil, Switzerland).
FORREST SHULL is a division director at the Fraunhofer Center for Experimental Software Engineering in Maryland, a nonprofit research and tech transfer organization, where he leads the Measurement and Knowledge Management Division. He's also an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland College Park and editor in chief of IEEE Software. Contact him at email@example.com.