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Joke: Student subjects in software engineering experiments

Most academic experiments in software engineering use the students available to the researcher as subjects, often classifying first year as novices and final year or postgrads as experts. If professional developers (i.e., non-student) subjects are used the paper will trumpet this fact; talk of comparing novices and experts is the give-away for an all undergraduate subject line-up. Most computing academics don’t write much software, so they are blissfully ignorant that they and their students are novices compared to a professional developer with a couple of years experience.

Results from well designed and executed experiments can reasonably be extended to cover people who share the skills used by subjects in the experiment. Becoming an expert programmer takes several years of continuous (i.e., several hours a day) practice. Using real experts in a programming experiment means that no measurable change in programming skill will occur during the experiment, while novices are likely to noticeably learn during the experiment and thus introduce unwanted sources of variation into the results. Of course novices will also take longer and are likely to have patterns of behavior that are not yet been selectively tuned to something that works in practice.

There is also an elephant in the room of student subjects in software engineering; some of the students are never going to get jobs in software engineering because they are completely useless at it. How does a student manage to get a degree in a software related subject and be unemployable as a software engineer? Money. Students are attracted by the money and lifestyle they hear a job in software engineering will offer and many Universities are happy to treat the computing department as a cash cow by offering courses that allow students to concentrate on “strategic” subjects and avoid having to get involved in nitty gritty details like programming. The University is probably defrauding some students by accepting them for a software related degree course.

My experience is that professional developers are happy to donate some time to taking part in a software engineering experiment. They just have to be asked, of course I do have the advantage of actually knowing some professional software developers.

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