Is Software Engineering Really Engineering?

Programmers: Stop Calling Yourselves Engineers

This article raises some valid points about whether or not software engineering really is engineering.

While software does have some overlap with traditional engineering disciplines, I believe that it’s fundamentally different because it usually doesn’t involve physical materials. Software is similar to mathematics in that it’s only one step removed from pure ideas. As Fred Brooks wrote in Mythical Man-Month:

The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures…

This allows for practices like Agile development and continuous deployment. Combined with the rise of scripting languages in the past few years (NodeJS and Python powering backends, for example), it has become easier to deploy poorly-engineered software to production. That’s not necessarily Agile’s or scripting languages’ fault. It’s just a consequence of a diminished need for rigor.

Test-driven development, extreme programming, and other approaches reintroduces some of the rigor, but I don’t believe that’s enough. These processes are difficult to faithfully implement in a real-world setting, which waters down their effectiveness.

I believe the key to solving this issue is a change in attitude on the part of software engineers. Even though it’s easy to give into poor quality production software and loose standards for unit testing and integration testing, software engineering teams and their managers need to take a stronger stance on shipping quality products. The emphasis on design in the current Apple-dominated consumer tech world is a great model to emulate. We should be as insistent on good software as we are on good design. In the end, shipping high-quality software is rewarding for both users and engineers.