|Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering|
|author||Robert L. Glass|
|rating||8 out of 10|
|summary||40 years of software engineering research in a nutshell.|
Facts and Fallacies is not a technically demanding book; it's a very easy and compelling read. There are 55 Facts (and 5+5 fallacies) grouped into logical sections such as Management, Life Cycle, and Quality.
First, each Fact is stated succinctly. (For instance, Fact 1: The most important factor in software work is not the tools or techniques used by the programmers, but rather the quality of the programmers themselves.) Then the point is fleshed out more fully -- in this case, that even with all the periodic hype for some hot new methodology that promises orders of magnitude greater productivity, the quality of your programmers matters far more than anything else (and even the best new methods only offer 5-35% increases).
Next, the level of controversy about this Fact is discussed. For Fact 1, it's that even though everyone pays lip service to the idea of people being more important than processes, we all still act like it's not true. Maybe this new hot methodology can turn all your lousy programmers into great ones! Perhaps it's because people are a harder problem to address than tools, techniques, and process. And, of course, hot new methodologies sell a lot of books.
Finally comes a list of sources and references, which can lead you to more in-depth great reading like Peopleware and Software Runaways. This all works out to about one to two pages per item.
The Facts and Fallacies
The Facts and Fallacies fall into several groups. Some are not well known (or just met with stunned disbelief) such as Fact 31: Error removal is the most time-consuming phase of the life cycle. Some that are pretty well accepted, but are mostly ignored, like Fact 1 above. Some that are accepted, but nobody can agree on what to do about (if anything), like Fact 9 (paraphrased) #150: Project estimates are done at the beginning of the project when you have insufficient understanding of the requirements and scope, which makes it a very bad time to do an estimate for the entire project.
Some Facts Glass acknowledges many people will flat out disagree with (and for a few people, very loudly), like Fact 30: COBOL is a very bad language, but all the others (for business data processing) are so much worse. These are the Facts where he really has an axe to grind, and make for amusing reading. In this case what he's really saying is that there is a use for domain-specific languages intended to do one specific thing and do it well, rather than languages like C and Java which attempt to be "good enough" for any use under the sun. But everyone hates COBOL, including me, so it's controversial.
Again, this is a good (and fast) Read. Even if you don't agree with everything, Glass is a skilled writer with strong opinions and a sense of humor. And you might end up agreeing more than you expected. I was pretty skeptical when I started reading. After all, I'm a long time software engineer with strong opinions too, and how often do you get opinionated geeks to agree on even what soda or text editor to use? But most of the Facts resonated with my experience, and of course for most of them Glass has substantial research reference for. The best Facts are those that you knew but might never have expressed explicitly, like Fact 41: Maintenance typically consumes 40 to 80 percent (average, 60 percent) of software costs. Therefore, it is probably the most important life cycle phase of software.
Or consider Fact 18: There are two 'rules of three' in reuse: (a) it is three times as difficult to build reusable components as single use components, and (b) a reusable component should be tried out in three different applications before it will be sufficiently general to accept into a reuse library. I knew this generally, and you probably did too, but I didn't know the specific reference for "Biggerstaff's Rules of Three," which give you a ballpark figure.
The book was written in 2002, when eXtreme Programming was hot, and it's very interesting that the predictions Glass made in this book about the strengths and weaknesses of XP were, in retrospect, pretty much on target, and this sort of predictive success helps confirm more viscerally that he knows his subject.
There are a few Facts in here that Glass included just because he feels strongly about them (or even about specific people) and he doesn't really back them up very strongly except with "well golly, this is so obvious." Like Fallacy 5: Programming can and should be egoless. Note that this is a Fallacy, so he opposes it. I happen to agree with him, but his arguments are mostly personal ox-goring even if they're based on his extensive experience. Still, it's an interesting read.
A few of the Fallacies he feels are so obvious that he doesn't even really bother providing sources or references for them, and this somewhat diminishes the overall feel of rigor.
Really, the worst thing about this book is that it doesn't come with a poster of just a bullet-pointed list of facts and fallacies that you can nail to your office wall (or your boss's).
A Few More Facts
Just to whet your appetite:
Fact 21: For every 25% increase in problem complexity, there is a 100% increase in solution complexity.
Fact 37: Rigorous inspections [code reviews] can remove up to 90% of errors before the first test case is run. [But are so mentally and emotionally exhausting that we rarely do them.]
Fallacy 10: You teach people how to program by showing them how to write programs. Why don't we teach them to read programs first? Good question (and he has a few possible answers).
I wouldn't say this Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering is quite as powerful as The Mythical Man Month, Peopleware or Death March on their own, but if you program (or manage programmers) and want to be more than just a code pig, this will give you the condensed version of 40 years of research in a very readable package. Even if you don't agree with everything he says, it's well worth considering it.
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