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What is empirical software engineering?

Writing a book about empirical software engineering requires making decisions about which subjects to discuss and what to say about them.

The obvious answer to “which subjects” is to include everything that practicing software engineers do, when working on software systems; there are some obvious exclusions like traveling to work. To answer the question of what software engineers do, I have relied on personal experience, my own and what others have told me. Not ideal, but it’s the only source of information available to me.

The foundation of an empirical book is data, and I only talk about subjects for which public data is available. The data requirement is what makes writing this book practical; there is not a lot of data out there. This lack of data has allowed me to avoid answering some tricky questions about whether something is, or is not, part of software engineering.

What approach should be taken to discussing the various subjects? Economics, as in cost/benefit analysis, is the obvious answer.

In my case, I am a developer and the target audience is developers, so the economic perspective is from the vendor side, not the customer side (e.g., maximizing profit, not minimizing cost or faults). Most other books have a customer oriented focus, e.g., high reliability is important (with barely a mention of the costs involved); this focus on a customer oriented approach comes from the early days of computing where the US Department of Defense funded a lot of software research driven by their needs as a customer.

Again the lack of data curtails any in depth analysis of the economic issues involved in software development. The data is like a patchwork of islands, the connections between them are under water and have to be guessed at.

Yes, I am writing a book on empirical software engineering that contains the sketchiest of outlines on what empirical software engineering is all about. But if the necessary data was available, I would not live long enough to get close to completing the book.

What of the academic take on empirical software engineering? Unfortunately the academic incentive structure strongly biases against doing work of interest to industry; some of the younger generation do address industry problems, but they eventually leave or get absorbed into the system. Academics who spend time talking to people in industry, to find out what problems exist, tend to get offered jobs in industry; university managers don’t like loosing their good people and are incentivized to discourage junior staff fraternizing with industry. Writing software is not a productive way of generating papers (academics are judged by the number and community assessed quality of papers they produce), so academics spend most of their work time babbling in front of spotty teenagers; the result is some strange ideas about what industry might find useful.

Academic software engineering exists in its own self-supporting bubble. The monkeys type enough papers that it is always possible to find some connection between an industry problem and published ‘research’.

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