Posts Tagged ‘research’

Gentleman scientists in software engineering

March 31st, 2017 No comments

The Royal Society was formed in 1660 as a “College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning”. A lot of very important research was done by members of this society, who were independently wealthy or held a university post.

For a while now, I have thought that the only way software engineering is going to advance to become a real engineering/scientific discipline is via gentleman scientists (unless industry really does need more clueless button pushers).

I was talking at the LondonR meeting on Tuesday (slides) and got chatting with familiar faces from hackathons. It seems that they had also had ideas for researching particular problems in software engineering, and liked the idea of a group of Gentleman scientists.

The problem we have is that none of us wants to do the organizing (a common problem). We must be able to do better than meeting in a pub.

I think the main qualifications for being a member of the group of Gentleman scientists for the “Promoting of Software Experimental Learning” would be something like:

  • enjoying the pleasure of gaining knowledge about how the world works, i.e., no flights of fancy,
  • interested in finding answers to questions whose answers are not yet known, i.e., doing real research, not personal learning,
  • have the funds to support what you do, i.e., you want funding, you find it,
  • being proficient in a necessary skill, i.e., you cannot be a beginner in all the required skills.

If the Danish Gentlemen scientists can send rockets into space, I’m sure the inhabitants of London and surrounds (no nationality restrictions here) can make major discoveries in software engineering (nobody has really found any yet, they are all waiting to be found).

Doing software research is not expensive, in monetary terms. It requires that those involved know something about real-life software issues and have the time and inclination to research possible solutions. People in industry are ideally placed to do the research. There are academic research groups doing interesting work in this area (they are in the minority). There are no groups we could join that are within easy traveling distance of London’ish based people (I would claim none in the UK).

The rationale for having a group of like-minded people meeting together include: it provides a structure and focus, sharing ideas is interesting and helps refine them, it’s an enjoyable night out, and a network is good for sharing/finding resources.

What might be the outputs of this group/network/society/asylum? Blog posts, talks, reports, books: the intent is to produce stuff that practicing software developers will find useful.

When the Royal Society started, Latin was the language of scholars. It’s motto ‘Nullius in verba’ catches the sentiment, but ‘take nobody’s word for it’ does not sound catchy. Something to work on.

I will keep readers posted on any progress (e.g., finding a venue and organizing a night). If any readers knows of an existing group like this, please let me know (not looking to build an empire).

2015: A new C semantics research group

June 30th, 2015 3 comments

A very new PhD student research group working on C semantics has just appeared on the horizon. You can tell they are very new to C semantics by the sloppy wording in their survey of C users (what is a ‘normal’ compiler and how does it differ from the ‘current mainstream’ compiler referred to in some questions? I’m surprised the outcome appeared clear to the authors, given the jumble of multiple choice options given to respondents).

Over the years a number of these groups have appeared, existed until their members received a PhD and then disappeared. In some cases one of the group members does something that shows a lot of potential (e.g., the C-semantics work), but the nature of academic research means that either the freshly minted PhD moves to industry or else moves on to another research area. Unfortunately most groups are overwhelmed by the task and pivot into meaningless subsets of concentrating on mathematical organisms. Very, very occasionally interesting work gets supported once the PhD is out of the way, Coccinelle being the stand-out example for C.

It takes implementing a full compiler (as part of a PhD or otherwise) to learn C semantics well enough to do meaningful research on it. The world seems to be stuck in a loop of using research to educate know-nothings until they know-something and then sending them off on another track. This is why C language researchers keep repeating themselves every 10 years or so.

Will anybody in this new group do any interesting work? Alan Mycroft set the bar very high for Cambridge by submitting a 100 page comment document on the draft C89 standard that listed almost as much ambiguous wording as everybody else put together found (but he was implementing a compiler in his spare time and not doing it for a PhD, so perhaps he does not count).

One suggestion I would make to this new group is that if they really are interested in actual usage they should measure actual usage, developer beliefs about compiler behavior is rarely very accurate and always heavily tainted by experiences from when they first started out.

A checklist for evaluating compiler semantic research.

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Success: Software engineering data is starting to become very dull

July 31st, 2014 No comments

A few years ago it was unusual for the author(s) of a paper in software engineering to make their data public (and on top of that it was rare to encounter a paper that actually made use of empirical data). The situation now is that I am having trouble keeping up with all the papers that include a link to downloadable data. Part of the problem is that I will pay a lot more attention to papers that come with data, having lived through a long famine I have not yet adjusted to the greater abundance. I’m sure that journal editors and referees are in the same boat and are being lured by accompanying data to accept paper for publication that they would otherwise have rejected.

This growing quantity of empirical software engineering data means we can now start thinking about what data is useful to have and what data is not so useful. Data is useful if it highlights a pattern of behavior that can be used to help reduce the resources needed to create/maintain software.

To get a handle on estimating data usefulness we need a model of research in software engineering. While many have used Physics as the model for software engineering research (i.e., a few simple universal laws that apply everywhere), I think Biology is a much better fit.

Software is written in different habitats environments (e.g., small teams, large teams) and targets different habitats environments (e.g., embedded, desktop, mobile, supercomputer) using different techniques and driven by different predators/prey market forces (e.g., release first/quickly, be reliable). Yes there are common drivers, just as the living things studied by biologists share a common need to eat, sleep and reproduce.

Like biology, the bulk of software engineering research is about the study of niche topics, with some small percentage of researchers trying to build theories that tie everything together at one level or another to create bigger pictures.

This model of software engineering research means estimating the usefulness of data probably requires some knowledge of the niche to which it applies. It also means that a particular data set might not be useful yet because it needs to be combined with other data, that does not yet exist (perhaps it was collected first because it was easier to do).

So in a space of a few years most software engineering data has gone from being very interesting (because it is rare) to being very dull (because it is harder to stand out in a crowd).

Cloning research needs a new mantra

August 22nd, 2013 2 comments

The obvious answer to software engineering researchers who ask why their findings are not applied within industry is that their findings provide no benefits to industry. Anyone who digs into the published research finds that in fact there is lots of potentially useful stuff in there, the problem is that researchers often take too narrow a perspective.

A good example of a research area that is generally ignored by industry but has potential for widespread benefits is software cloning; that is chunks of source code that are duplicated within the same application (a chunk may be as little as five lines or may be more, and the definition of duplicate varies from exactly the same character sequence, through semantic equivalence to chilling out with a certain percentage of lines being the same {with various definitions for ‘same’}). (This is not about duplication of code in multiple versions of the same product, we all know how nasty that can be to maintain).

Researchers regard cloning as bad, while I suspect many developers are neutral on the subject or even in favor of creating and using duplicate code.

Clone research will be ignored by industry while researchers continue to push the mantra “clones are bad”. It just does not gel with industry’s view.

Developers are under pressure to deliver working software; if they can save time by (legally) making use of existing code then there is an immediate benefit to them and their employer. The researchers’ argument is that clones increase maintenance costs (a fault being fixed in one of the duplicates but not the other(s) is often cited as the killer case for all clones being bad). What developers know is that most code is never maintained (e.g., is is rewritten, or never used again or works fine and does not need to be changed).

Do company’s that own software care about it containing clones? They are generally more interested in meeting deadlines and being first to market. If a product is a success it will be worth paying its maintenance costs; why risk spending extra time/money on creating a beautifully written product when most products don’t well well enough to be worth maintaining? If the software is bespoke, for in-house use or by a client, then increased maintenance costs are good for those involved in writing the software (i.e., they get paid to maintain it).

The new clone research mantra should be that clones have benefits and costs, and the research results help increase benefits and decrease costs. How does this increase/decrease work? You’re the researchers, you tell me.

My own experience with clones is that they do sometimes multiply costs (i.e., work has to be done more than once) but overall their creation and use is very cost effective, as for ‘missed’ fault fixes clones are a small subset of this use case.

I have heard of projects where there has been rampant copying, plus minor modification, of code within the project. If such projects fail then the issue is one of project management and control, with cloning being one of the consequences.

The number of clones usually found in a large software system is surprisingly high; . If you want to check out the clones in your own code CCFinder is well worth a look. The most common use for such tools is plagiarism detection.

Empirical SE groups doing interesting work, 2013 version

June 29th, 2013 2 comments

Various people have asked me about who is currently doing interesting work in empirical software engineering and the following is an attempt to help answer this question. Interestingness is very subjective, in my case it is based on whether I think the work can contribute something towards my book on empirical software engineering.

To keep this list manageable I am restricting myself to groups of researchers (a group is two or more people) and giving priority to those who make their data publicly available.

Some background for those with no experience of academic research. Over a period of 4-5 years a group can go from having published nothing on a research topic to publishing some very interesting stuff to not publishing anything on the topic. Reasons for this include funding appearing/disappearing, the arrival/departure of very productive people (departure may be to other jobs or moving from research into management), or the researcher loosing interest and moving onto other things. A year from now any of the following groups may be disbanded or moved on to other research areas.

The conferences to check out are: Mining Software Repositories, Source Code Analysis and Manipulation, perhaps 1 in 2.5 of CREST Open Workshop and International Conference on Software Maintenance.

General sources of raw data include: promisedata and FLOSSmole is a firehose of bytes.

Who is the biggest group of researchers? In my mind it is the Canadians (to be exact the groups at Queen’s and Waterloo and the Ptidel project), now the empirical group at Microsoft would probably point out that they are not separated by several hundred miles and all work for the same company; this may be true but looking from Europe the Canadians look real close to each other on a map and all share a domain name ending in ca. In practice members of all three groups write papers together and spend time visiting/interning with each other. Given how rapidly things change I am not going to bother calculating an accurate number 1 for today.

Around the world (where there is no group page to link to I have used an individual’s page):


Germany (Saarland, Magdeburg)






Switzerland (SCG and REVEAL)

UK (theory in groups, practice by individuals; Brunel would warrant a link if they put some effort into maintaining a web presence and made their data available for download; come on guys)

USA (Devanbu, Grechanik, Kemerer, Menzies, SEMERU + TODO; Binkley for identifier semantics)

Some researchers leave a group to set up their own group and I know that some people in the above lists have done this. I wish them luck. If their group starts publishing interesting stuff they will be on any future version of this list.

Sitting here typing away I have probably missed out some obvious candidates. Pointers to obvious omissions welcome (remember this is about groups not individuals).

Wot, apply academic work in industry?

May 15th, 2013 No comments

Academics often moan about industry not making use of their work (or at least they do within the code analysis niche I frequent, I have no real knowledge of other niches). There are three reasons for this state of affairs:

  1. The work that most academics do has no practical relevance to industry. This is the lion’s share of the reason and something that many academics will agree with if none of their colleges are likely to overhear them. I suspect many academics are not too fussed that their work is not used by industry and are happy to continue working on things they find interesting (or that they can write papers about that disconnected souls are happy to see published).
  2. Very very few people in the software industry ever read academic papers. But hey, not reading manuals is regarded as a badge of honour. Some people do read manuals and are quickly elevated to expert status. Academic papers do have a very low signal to noise ratio and learning to speed read them to locate the gold nuggets takes practice.
  3. If an academic’s work is applied by some company the last thing those involved will do is say anything about it. Industry is a cut-throat place and what is to be gained by freely giving useful information to the competition?

    The second product my company ever produced was a range of code generators for an intermediate code that was currently interpreted; how best to match the patterns in the intermediate code and also reuse as much as possible for the different cpu targets? I found a solution in Mahadevan Ganapahi’s PhD thesis and now 33 years after publishing it he gets some credit for a long gone industrial application.

The fatal programming language research mistake

March 8th, 2012 7 comments

There is a fatal mistake often made by those involved in academic programming language research and a recent blog post (by an academic) asking if programming language research has a future has spurred me into writing about this mistake.

As an aside, I would agree with much of what the academic (Cristina (Crista) Videira Lopes) says about many popular modern programming languages being hacked together by kids who did not know much, if anything about, language design. However, this post is not a lament about the poor design quality of the languages commonly used in the commercial world; it is about the most common fatal mistake academics make when researching programming languages and a suggestion about how they can avoid making this mistake. What really endeared me to Crista was her critic of academic claims of language ‘betterness’ being completely unfounded (i.e., not being based on any empirical research).

The most common fatal mistake made by researchers in programing language design is to invent a new language. Creating an implementation for any language is a big undertaking and a new language has the added hurdles of convincing developers it is worth learning, providing the learning/reference materials and porting to multiple platforms. Researchers spend nearly all their time creating an implementation and a small percentage of their time actively researching the ‘new idea’.

The attraction of designing a new language is that it is regarded as ‘sexy’ activity and the first (and usually only) time around the work needed to create an implementations does not look that great.

If a researcher really does feel that their idea is so revolutionary it is worth creating a whole new language for and they want me, and others, to start using it, then they need to make sure they can answer yes to the following questions:

  • Have you, or your students, created an implementation of the language that provides reasonable diagnostics, executes programs at an acceptable rate and is available free of charge on the operating systems I use for software development?
  • Is sufficient documentation available for me to learn the language and act as a reference manual once I become more expert?
  • For the next five years will you, or your students, be providing, free of charge, prompt bug fixes to errors in your implementation?
  • Will you and your students spend the time necessary to build an active user community for your language?
  • For the next five years will you, or your students knowledgeable in the language, provide prompt support (via an email group or bulletin board) to user queries?

Some new languages from academia have managed to answer yes to these questions (Haskell, R and OCaml spring to mind, but only R looks like it will have any significant industrial take-up).

In practice most new languages fail to get past fragile implementations only ever used by their designer, with minimal new research to show for all the effort that went into them.

What programming language researchers need to do, at least if they want people outside of their own department to pay any attention to their ideas, is to experiment by adding functionality to an existing language. Using an existing language as a base has the advantages:

  • modifying an existing implementation is significantly less work than creating a new one,
  • having to address all of the features present in real world languages will help weed out poor designs that only look good on paper (I continue to be amazed that people can be involved in programming language research without knowing any language very well),
  • documentation for most of the language already exists,
  • more likely to attract early adopters, developers tend to treat existing language+extensions as being a much smaller jump than a new language.

Programming language research is something of a fashion industry and I can well imagine people objecting to having to deal with a messy existing language. Well yes, the real world is a messy place and if a new design idea cannot handle that it deserves to be lost to posterity.

One cannot blame students for being idealistic and thinking they can create a language that will take over the world. It is the members of staff who should be ridiculed for being either naive or intellectually shallow.