Recommended reading (it’s short), from the January 2010 issue of CACM:
What Should We Teach New Software Developers? Why?
by Bjarne Stroustrup
It’s a wonderfully accurate and concise summary of the disconnect between the ivory tower and the trenches – i.e., (some) computer science academics and (some) software development industry managers, with commentary on other topics like why or why not to regulate the software development industry.
My favorite part is this from the conclusion (emphasis added):
We must do better. Until we do, our infrastructure will continue to creak, bloat, and soak up resources. Eventually, some part will break in some unpredictable and disastrous way (think of Internet routing, online banking, electronic voting, and control of the electric power grid). …
Bjarne isn’t prone to disaster warnings (indeed, this is the first time I recall seeing a comment like this from him, even over a beer or three), but he’s right. This hits directly on an issue I’ve also been giving thought to in recent years: As an industry and a society, we routinely underestimate the degree to which we’ve gradually allowed our automated civilization to become reliant on computers and software, and vulnerable as a result. We’ve been satisfied with making any given system “reliable enough” for the intended application (e.g., having a much higher bar for life-critical software than for a word processor), and so far we’ve been able to get away with that without the level of broad regulation for software development that is routinely required for other disciplines like engineering that are involved in providing essential products and services. Of course, as Bjarne points out, one reason for the lack of regulation of the software development industry is that we don’t know (and/or can’t agree on) exactly what to require and how to measure it; we’re just not as mature a field yet as civil or mechanical engineering.
Recognizing the potential scope of a catastrophic and systemic software failure in the field – one that disables a vital piece of infrastructure (say, electric power or food distribution, country-wide for a month) and that can’t be patched with a remote update – adds impetus to understanding and solving the kinds of issues Bjarne writes about.