August 22, 1999
The buggy-software epidemic
Nicholas Petreley's latest "Down the Wire" column, in the August 16 issue of InfoWorld (see http://www.infoworld.com) is entitled "Silence is deadly when it comes to curing the buggy-software epidemic", commenting on Mark Minasi's forthcoming book The Software Conspiracy. The book and the article are a protest against the buggy state of much of today's software.
(These are only excerpts; read the magazine for full details.)
[...] Software publishers aren't interested in writing solid, bug-free code because they are convinced that features sell, not quality.
Computer journalists should focus less on features and more on reliability when reviewing software. More importantly, we should go out of our way to rip out the fingernails and reaarange the face of any vendor that delivers programs with security holes and bugs.
At the customer's end, people can demand a refund when their software misbehaves.
Prima donnas and potatoes
One of the more surprising comments of the article (and the book) is that "software publishers may be sabotaging their products by hiring the best and brightest programmers" and that we need to hire the "meat-and-potatoes programmers" who are "prepared to do the boring but necessary work that makes a product rock-solid".
The criticism of creative programmers -- the "prima donnas" (or prime donne?) -- is an old saw, and not worth much attention. Programming is a creative activity; the suggestion that "it may take more of an assembly-line mentality to produce efficient, bullet-proof code" is unlikely to help software quality. We need more intelligence, not less.
Fortunately, the article is worth more than this particular peeve. Its basic diagnostic is clearly right. The solutions suggested, in particular changing the attitude of computer product reviewers, are on target. But it would be naive to assume that they are enough, and more naive yet for a producer of complex software, today, to sign his name to a true warranty unless he keeps in his pocket, at all times, an open plane ticket to the Bahamas.
The problem is partly technical but, more fundamentally, political and psychological. As the experience of Eiffel in mission-critical systems shows, major improvements are possible to the quality of both the software process and the resulting products, at costs equal to or lower than conventional approaches. But the emphasis of the press, many of the opinion leaders in the industry, and the venture capital community has been on approaches that all but ignore quality concerns.
Until the industry wakes up to the relevance of quality in software, and the contributions of such practical approaches such as Eiffel to achieve it, the situation described by Minasi and Petreley will not significantly change.
Silence is deadly when it comes to curing the buggy-software epidemic, Nicholas Petreley, InfoWorld, August 16, 1999, page 114. 9-11.