Has the seed that gets software development out of the stone-age been sown?

December 25, 2010
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(This article was first published on The Shape of Code » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

A big puzzle for archaeologists is why stone age culture lasted as long as it did (from approximately 2.5 millions years ago until the start of the copper age around 6.3 thousand years ago). Given the range of innovation rates seen in various cultures through-out human history a much shorter stone age is to be expected. A recent paper proposes that low population density is what maintained the stone age status quo; there was not enough contact between different hunter gather groups for widespread take up of innovations. Life was tough and the viable lifetime of individual groups of people may not have been long enough for them to be likely to pass on innovations (either their own on ones encountered through contact with other groups).

Software development is often done by small groups that don’t communicate with other groups and regularly die out (well there is a high turn-over, with many of the more experienced people moving on to non-software roles). There are sufficient parallels between hunter gathers and software developers to suggest both were/are kept in a stone age for the same reason, lack of a method that enables people to obtain information about innovations and how worthwhile these might be within a given environment.

A huge barrier to the development of better software development practices is the almost complete lack of significant quantities of reliable empirical data that can be used to judge whether a claimed innovation is really worthwhile. Companies rarely make their detailed fault databases and product development history public; who wants to risk negative publicity and law suits just so academics have some data to work with.

At the start of this decade public source code repositories like SourceForge and public software fault repositories like Bugzilla started to spring up. These repositories contain a huge amount of information about the characteristics of the software development process. Questions that can be asked of this data include: what are common patterns of development and which ones result in fewer faults, how does software evolve and how well do the techniques used to manage it work.

Empirical software engineering researchers are now setting up repositories, like Promise, containing the raw data from their analysis of Open Source (and some closed source) projects. By making this raw data available they are reducing the effort needed by other researchers to investigate their own alternative ideas (I have just started a book on empirical software engineering using the R statistical language that uses examples based on this raw data).

One of the side effects of Open Source development could be the creation of software development practices that have been shown to be better (including showing that some existing practices make things worse). The source of these practices not being what the software developers themselves do or how they do it, but the footsteps they have left behind in the sand.

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