By V. Berba Velasco Jr., Ph.D.
As published on Bona Fide Reviews
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The title of "software engineer" has got to be among the most highly abused in the
corporate high-tech world. It's also one of the most popular.
And why not? It sounds a lot better than "computer programmer," and it looks much
better on one's business card. Unfortunately, it's often inaccurate. Engineering is,
after all, the application of sound technical principles to develop systems that are
robust, efficient and elegant. I've found that a great many software engineers can
develop working programs, but do little or no real engineering design.
Does this sound harsh? Perhaps, but I've also found it hard to deny. I've
encountered very few software engineers, for example, who have clean, crisp and
readable coding styles—an essential element of elegant software design. I've also
encountered a preponderance of cryptically written functions, clumsy software
abstractions and bizarre spaghetti code. To my dismay, I've discovered that even
among computer science graduates, many reduce object-oriented programming to
the mere use of private data, public functions and object instantiations. It's enough
to break a teacher's heart.
Now, I won't go so far as to say that most programmers write spaghetti code. That
would not be fair. However, I do think that relatively few programmers have a deep
appreciation for the artistry of software development. That's not to say that they're
ignorant of such things; not at all. Rather, it's more that the engineering aspects of
elegant code design are all too often neglected.
I think this happens because modern programming tools have made proper code
design seem like a nuisance. In the early years of computing, people were forced to
write out their software designs, pondering many fine details before they ever sat
down in front of the computer. Nowadays, with our fast compilers and interactive
debugging systems, programmers often find it more convenient to simply sit down
and start coding, with just a modicum of software design. Mind you, I do understand
that this is sometimes more efficient—when the programming task is fairly routine,
for example. However, when such design-as-you-go software development becomes
standard practice, then you have the makings of utter chaos.
In part, this problem is also rooted in the malleable nature of computer software. No
self-respecting civil engineer would design a bridge by slapping girders together until
he has something that works; after all, if the bridge collapses, it could take months
to rebuild it. Similarly, no sensible architect would want to build a house without
blueprints and floor plans. Yet it is commonplace for programmers to develop
software using poorly chosen functions and only the sketchiest of designs. After all,
if the software doesn't work, they can always find the bug and fix it—at least, in
theory. In practice, these bugs are often difficult to detect, and fixing them can
require extensive surgery. The consequences of an ill-designed software program
can be disastrous indeed.
For this reason, I believe that high-tech companies need to give software
engineering the respect that it deserves. They need to develop a true culture of
systematic software design, instead of merely settling for "whatever works." A
company that's looking toward the future must pay proper devotion to the principles
of software maintainability, proper documentation and elegant, robust design. It
must also inculcate a culture of true software engineering among its employees. The
failure to do so may work in the short-term, but it is a recipe for long-term disaster.
About the Author:
V. Berba Velasco Jr., Ph.D. takes great pride in working at Cellular Technology Ltd (http://www.immunospot.com,
http://www.elispot.cn) where he serves as a senior electrical and software engineer.
He is pleased to work in an environment where excellence is valued.