C. Keith Ray

C. Keith Ray is developing software for Sizeography and Upstart Technology. He writes code for multiple platforms and languages, including iOS® and Macintosh®.
Go to Sizeography and Upstart Technology to join our mailing lists and see more about our products. Keith's Résumé (pdf)

Monday, April 13, 2015

So-Called Software Engineering Body of Knowledge (SWEBOK)

(Originally posted 2003.Jun.01 Sun; links may have expired.)

Grady Booch has this to say about the SWEBOK: "The SWEBOK I reviewed was well-intentioned but misguided, naive, incoherent, and just flat wrong in so many dimensions."

Cem Kaner writes: "I think SWEBOK promotes a set of practices that are sometimes appropriate, but in many contexts thay are as outrageously expensive as they are remarkably ineffective. The idea of adopting these as a standard of care for our profession, is, at least to me, abhorrent."

It seems like the SWEBOK group ignored Grady Booch and many other reviewers three years ago. It attempts to be an authoritative reference of "generally accepted" practices, but the SWEBOK does not reflect principles and practices of agile software development, and otherwise misrepresents itself when claiming to be "generally accepted" by our diverse "industry". Do game developers, web-app developers, AI researchers, and shrink-wrap software developers need to use the same practices? SWEBOK may be representative of Department of Defense contracting practices (which is far from "general"), but even the DoD is trying to develop software systems in more agile ways these days.

The SWEBOK is again open to review. Cem Kaner recommends that we become reviewers to highlight that the practices the SWEBOK preaches are not accepted by all. I recommend that you not only review the SWEBOK and provide your comments to that group, but you also post your comments on the web, so that everyone using a search engine can see the controversy around the SWEBOK.

One danger of the SWEBOK is that it would be used to license software developers. Software development is too broad a field, too immature, and too rapidly changing a profession to have meaningful tests for licensing developers. Cem Kaner was part of the ACM task force that considered and rejected the SWEBOK and licensing based on it. Check out what the ACM task force had to say about it at http://www.acm.org/serving/se_policy/. The ACM task force writes:
  • Licensing as Professional Engineers would be impractical for software engineers, because it would require examinations over subjects most software engineers neither study in their formal education nor need in order to practice competent software engineering.
  • Licensing software engineers as Professional Engineers would have no or little effect on the safety of the software produced.
  • The SWEBOK effort, which specifically excludes from the body of knowledge the special knowledge required for most safety-critical systems (such as real-time software engineering techniques), will have little relevance for safety-critical systems, and it dangerously excludes the most important knowledge required to build these systems.
  • Each industry and software engineering domain will need to determine an appropriate mix of approaches that work together to solve their particular problems and fit within the cultural context of the particular industry. There are no simple and universal fixes to solve the problem of ensuring public safety. Effective approaches will involve establishing accountability, competency within specific application domains and job responsibilities, liability, regulation where appropriate, standards, voluntary product certification and warranties, and industry-specific requirements. Licensing as Professional Engineers would not be an effective way to accomplish any of these goals.

The task force recommended that:
  • ACM withdraw from efforts to license software engineers as Professional Engineers.
  • ACM take a stand against government efforts to require the licensing of software engineers as impractical, ineffective with respect to protecting public safety, and potentially detrimental with respect to economic and other societal and technological factors.
  • ACM not support the SWEBOK activities, but consider supporting other efforts to validate and codify basic knowledge in various aspects of software engineering.[...]
  • The professional societies, including ACM, must pursue every possible means towards improving the current state of affairs. At the same time, they must refrain from pursuing activities like SWEBOK that have a significant chance of reducing the public's understanding of, confidence in, and assurances about key properties of software.

When reviewing, please include positive comments as well as negative comments. If it's all negative, they will feel tempted to dismiss all that you write. George Dinwiddie had a good example of both positive and negative in the xp mailing list: They say, "One of the fundamental tenets of good software engineering is that there is good communication between system users and system developers." That's very good, but the next sentence says, "It is the requirements engineer who is the conduit for this communication." I don't see any justification for the assumption that there must be an intermediary.

Not only could a reviewer say that good communication is a good thing to emphasize, but the reviewer could then follow that by commenting that the assumption of a "conduit" is not generally accepted, perhaps referencing materials that document the "telephone game" effect of having someone between the system developers and the system users. Sure, a facilitator of some kind ("business analyst" or "human interface designer") is very helpful, but as an aid to the communication, not as a substitute for it. Extreme Programming, for example, says the "customer" should "speak with one voice", but not that the "customer" be a single person -- and if you call him a "requirements engineer", does that mean that person will have to a licensed engineer as well?

How much of a priesthood do we need?


UPDATE


(Originally posted 2003.Jun.23 Mon; links may have expired.)

Cem Kaner's Blog has as its first entry an call to arms on the SWEBOK. Here are few snippets:

In retrospect, I think that keeping away from SWEBOK was a mistake. I think it has the potential to do substantial harm. I urge you to get involved in the SWEBOK review, make your criticisms clear and explicit, and urge them in writing to abandon this project. Even though this will have little influence with the SWEBOK promoters, it will create a public record of controversy and protest. Because SWEBOK is being effectively pushed as a basis for licensing software engineers and evaluating / accrediting software engineering degree programs, a public record of controversy may play an important role.

I am most familiar with SWEBOK's treatments of software testing, software quality and metrics. It endorses practices that I consider wastefully bureaucratic, document-intensive, tedious, and in commercial software development, not likely to succeed. These are the practices that some software process enthusiasts have tried and tried and tried and tried and tried to ram down the throats of the software development community, with less success than they would like.

Only 500 people participated in the development of SWEBOK and many of them voiced deep criticisms of it. The balloted draft was supported by just over 300 people (of a mere 340 voting).  Within this group were professional trainers who stand to make substantial income from pre-licensing-exam and pre-certification-exam review courses, consulting/contracting firms who make big profits from contracts that (such as government contracts) that specify gold-plated software development processes (of course you need all this process documentation - the IEEE standards say you need it!), and academics who have never worked on a serious development project. There were also experienced, honest people with no conflicts of interest, but when there are only a few hundred voices, the voices of vested interests can exert a substantial influence on the result.

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