Reverse ungineering

(Title with apologies to Glyph.)

Recently, some friends of mine suggested that "software engineer" is not a good job title. While they are of course free to call their profession whatever they like, I respectfully disagree: I think "engineer" is a perfectly cromulent description of what we do.

This is an opinion piece. Despite arriving at opposite conclusions, the disagreement is feathery at best.

What if buildings failed as often as software projects?

To illustrate the differences between software development and other engineering disciplines, Glyph compares software to civil engineering.

For example, when it comes to getting things done, we're just not very good:

Most software projects fail; as of 2009, 44% are late, over budget, or out of specification, and an additional 24% are canceled entirely. Only a third of projects succeed according to those criteria of being under budget, within specification, and complete.

Such shenanigans would never be accepted in a Serious Engineering Discipline, like civil engineering:

Would you want to live in a city where almost a quarter of all the buildings were simply abandoned half-constructed, or fell down during construction? Where almost half of the buildings were missing floors, had rents in the millions of dollars, or both?

I certainly wouldn't.

Computers are terrible, but not quite that bad, as Glyph points out. "Failure" simply means something different for software projects than it does for construction projects. Many of those "failed" software projects were quite successful by other measures; the problem isn't with software projects, it's with applying civil engineering standards to a project that isn't.

Software projects aren't civil engineering projects. Attempts to treat them as such have done much more harm than good. That said, that doesn't mean that software development isn't engineering.

Firstly, civil engineering is the outlier here. Other engineering disciplines don't do well according to the civil engineering success yardstick either. The few engineering endeavors that do are usually civil engineering in disguise, such as the construction of nuclear and chemical plants. Rank-and-file projects in most fields of engineering operate a lot more like a software project than the construction of a skyscraper. Projects are late and over budget, often highly experimental in nature, and in many cases also subject to changing requirements. It's true that we just can't plan ahead in software, but we're not the only ones.

Secondly, we may be confounding cause and effect, even if we overlook that not all engineering is civil engineering. Are software projects unable to stick to these standards because it's not engineering, or is civil engineering the only thing that sticks to them because they have no other choice? Conversely, do we fail early and often because we're not engineering, or because, unlike civil engineering projects, we can? [1]

Finally, software has existed for decades, but buildings have for millennia. Bridges used to collapse all the time. Tacoma Narrows wasn't so long ago. If the tour guide on my trip to Paris is to be believed, one of those bridges has collapsed four times already.

But this isn't science!

Supposedly, software engineering isn't "real" engineering because, unlike "real" engineering, it is not backed by "real" science or math. This statement is usually paired with a dictionary definition of the word "engineering".

I feel this characterization is incongruent with the daily reality of engineering.

Consider the civil engineer, presumably the engineeringest engineer there is. [2] If you ask me to dimension an I-beam for you, I would:

  • spitball the load,
  • draw a free-body diagram,
  • probably draw a shear and moment diagram,
  • and pick the smallest standard beam that'll do what you want.

If you want to know how far that beam is going to go, I'll draw you some conjugate beams. I would also definitely not use the moment-area theorem, even though it wouldn't be too difficult for the reasonable uses of an I-beam.

Once upon a time, someone inflicted a variety of theories on me. Euler-Bernouilli beam theory, for example. Very heavy textbooks with very heavy math. Neither my physical therapist nor my regular one expect me to ever truly recover. Nonetheless, area moments and section moduli are the only way to understand where the I in I-beam comes from.

Nasty math didn't prevent me from dimensioning that I-beam. And I do really mean math, not physics: Euler-Bernouilli is a math hack. You get it by taking Hooke's law and throwing some calculus at it. Hooke's law itself is more math than physics, too: it's a first-order approximation based only on the observation that stuff stretches when you pull it. It's wrong all the time, even for fairly germane objects like rubber bands. Both theories were put together long before we had materials science. We use them because they (mostly) work, not because they are a consequence of a physical model.

That was just one example from a single discipline, but it holds more generally, too. I analyze circuits by recognizing subsections. If you show me a piece that looks like a low-pass filter, I am not distracted by Maxwell's equations to figure out what that little capacitor is doing. I could certainly derive its behavior that way; in fact, someone made me do that once, and it was quite instructive. But I'm not bothered with the electrodynamics of a capacitor right now; I'm just trying to understand this circuit!

This isn't just how engineers happen to do their jobs in practice, either. Engineering breakthroughs live on both sides of science's cutting edge. When Shockley et al. first managed to get a transistor to work, we didn't really understand what was going on. [3] Carnot was building engines long before anyone realized he had stumbled upon one of the most fundamental properties of the universe. Nobody was doing metaphysics. Sadi wanted a better steam engine.

To me, saying that I-beam was dimensioned with the help of beam theory is about as far from the truth as saying that a software project was built with the help of category theory. I'm sure that there's some way that that thing I just wrote is a covariant functor and you can co-Yoneda your way to proving natural isomorphism, but I don't have to care in order to successfully produce some software. It's easy to reduce an applied field to just the application of that field, but that doesn't make it so; especially if we haven't even really figured out the field yet.

So, even if the math and science behind computer engineering is somehow less real than that other math and science, I think that difference is immaterial, and certainly not enough to make us an entirely different profession.

But that isn't art!

Many people smarter than I have made the argument that programming is art, not dissimilar from painting, music or even cooking. I'm inclined to agree: many talented programmers are also very talented artists in other fields. However, I do disagree that those things are art-like unlike engineering, which is supposedly just cold, hard science.

There's a not-so-old adage that science is everything we understand well enough to explain to a computer, and art is everything else. If that's true, there's definitely plenty of art to be found in engineering. (That was a little tongue-in-cheek. Nobody wants to get dragged into a semantic argument about what art is.)

Even with a much narrower view of art, engineers do plenty of it, as I've tried to argue before. Not all engineering calls are direct consequences of relativity, thermodynamics or quantum mechanics. Sometimes, it is really just down to what the engineer finds most palatable. Even civil engineers, the gray predictable stalwarts of our story, care about making beautiful things. The Burj Khalifa wasn't a consequence of a human following an algorithm.

Conclusion

I think the similarities run deep. I hope we don't throw that away essentially just because our field is a little younger. We're all hackers here; and we're all engineers, too.

Footnotes

[1] I suppose this is really analogous to the anthropic principle, except applied to engineering disciplines instead of humans.
[2] I'm using civil engineer here in the strict American sense of person who builds targets, as opposed to the military engineer, who builds weapons. Jokes aside, perhaps this is related to the disagreement. Where I come from, "civil engineer" means "advanced engineering degree", and encompasses many disciplines, including architectural (for lack of better word; I mean the American "civil engineer" here), chemical, electrical, and yes, computer.
[3] While it is very easy to make up a sensible-sounding narrative time line after the fact for the breakthroughs in physics and engineering that eventually made the transistor possible, this ignores the strong disagreements between theoretical predictions and practical measurements of the time. Regardless of their cause, it would be foolish to assume that Shockley just sat down and applied some theory. The theory just wasn't there yet.