Programming, Software, Work

Defining the idea of “software engineering”

I have been reading Dave Farley’s Modern Software Engineering. Overall it’s a great read and thoroughly recommended (I’m still reading through it but I’ve read enough to know it is really interesting and a well-considered approach to common problems in development).

One of the challenges Dave tackles is to try and provide a definition of what software engineering actually is. This is actually a pretty profound challenge in my view. I’ve often felt that developers have usurped the title of engineer to provide a patina of respectability to their hacky habits. Even in Dave’s telling of the origin of the term it was used to try and provide parity of esteem with hardware engineers (by no lesser figure than Margaret Hamilton).

In large organisations where they have actual engineers it is often important to avoid confusion between what Dave categorises as Design and Production engineering. Software engineering sits in the world of design engineering. Software is malleable and easy to change unlike a supply chain or a partially completed bridge. Where the end result of the engineering process is an expensive material object Dave points that it is common to spend a lot of time modelling the end result and refining the delivery process for the material output as a result of the predictions of the model. For software to some extent our model is the product and we can often iterate and refine it at very low cost.

Dave proposes the following definition of engineering:

Engineering is the application of an empirical, scientific approach to finding efficient, economical solutions to practical problems.

Dave Farley, Modern Software Engineering

This definition is one I can live with and marries my experience of creating software to the wider principles of engineering. It also bridges across the two realms of engineering, leaving the differences to practices rather than principles.

It is grounded in practicality rather than aloof theories and it emphasises that capacities drive effective solutions as much as needs. This definition is a huge step forward in being able to build consensus around the purpose of a software engineer.


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