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The fall of Rome and the ascendancy of ego and bluster

The idea that empirical software engineering started 10 years ago, driven by the availability of Open Source that could be measured, turns out to be a rather blinkered view of history.

A few months ago I was searching for a report and tried the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC), which I had last tried many years ago. The search quickly located the report, plus lots of other stuff, and over the next few weeks I downloaded a few hundred interesting looking reports. These are pdfs that often don’t show up in Google searches and sometimes not on DTIC searches unless the right combination of words is used (many of the pdfs have been created by converting microfiche copies of the original paper, with some, often very good, OCR thrown into the mix).

It turns out that during the 1970s at the Rome Air Development Center (RADC was the primary research lab of the US Air Force) something of a golden age for empirical software engineering research occurred (compared to the following 25 years).

The ingredients necessary for great research came together at Rome during this decade: the US Department of Defense were spending huge amounts of money creating lots of software systems; the management at RADC understood the importance of measurement and analysis, and had the money to hire good consultants to do it.

Why did the volume of quality reports coming out of RADC decline in the 1980s (it closed in 1991)? I have no idea, perhaps the managers responsible for the great work moved on or priorities changed.

Ego and bluster is how software engineering research operated after the decline of Rome (I’m sure plenty of it occurred before and during Rome). A researcher or independent consultant had an idea about how they thought things worked (perhaps bolstered by a personal experience, not lots of data) and if their ego was big enough to think this idea was a good model of reality and they invest enough time blustering their way through workshop presentations and publishing papers, then the idea could become part of mainstream thinking in academia; no empirical evidence needed.

The start of the ego and bluster period could be said to be 1981, the year in which Software Engineering Economics by Barry Boehm was published, and 2008 as the end of the ego and bluster period (or at least the start of its decline) the year of publication of the 3rd edition of Applied Software Measurement by Capers Jones. Both books dress up tiny amounts of empirical data as ‘proof’ of the ideas being promoted.

Without measurement data researchers have to resort to bluster to hide the flimsy foundations of the claims being made, those with the biggest egos taking center stage. Commercial companies are loath to let outsiders measure what they are doing and very few measure what they are doing themselves (so even confidential data is rare). Most researchers moved onto other topics once they realised how little data was available or could be made available to them.

Around 2005, or so, the volume of papers using new empirical data started to grow and a trickle has now turned into a flood. Of course making use of empirical data does not prevent research papers being a complete waste of time and ego and bluster is still widely practiced (and not limited to software engineering).

While a variety of individuals and research groups around the world (sadly only individuals in the UK) are actively working on extracting and analysing open source systems, practical progress has been very slow. Researchers are still coming to grips with the basic characteristics of the data they are seeing.

The current legacy, in software engineering, of long standing beliefs (built on tiny datasets) is a big problem. Lots of researchers have not seen through the bluster and are spending lots of time and effort trying to accommodate the results they are obtaining with what are mistakenly taken to be ‘established’ theories. One example is “Program Evolution – Processes of Software Change” by Lehman and Belady, from the late 1970s. Researchers need to stop looking at Lehman’s ‘laws’ through rose tinted glasses; a modern paper making Lehman’s claims based on such a small set of measurements would be laughed.

Most of those now working with empirical data are students working towards a postgraduate degree, some of whom have gone on to get full-time research jobs. Unfortunately there are still many researchers applying the habits they acquired during the ego and bluster period; fit some old data using the latest fashionable technique, publish and quickly move on to the next fashionable technique. As Max Planck observed, science advances one funeral at a time.

What is the name should be given to this new period of software engineering research? We will probably have to wait many more years before things become clear.

Software Reliability is one report from the Rome period that is well worth checking out.

NASA sponsored research was hit and mostly miss. One very interesting sequence of experiments is documented in: Software reliability: Repetitive run experimentation and modeling and An experiment in software reliability.

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