Victor Denisov's blog

A Blog About Programming

Conscious Programmer

Authors of some blog posts on the Internet deprive software engineering of the right to be called an engineering discipline. They like to give examples of how accountable and responsible real engineers are and how reckless are software engineers. As a person who spent 7 years in university learning different areas of math in order to become a software engineer I find those statements preposterous and insulting. At the same time I have to admit that a lot of practices that I see in the industrial software engineering give some ground to those statements. I arrive to a conclusion that even if software is an engineering discipline not everyone practices it as such.

After ten years in the industry I’m disappointed by how things are usually done. The experience that you gain doesn’t elevate you. You keep running into the same issues that you need to troubleshoot over your weekend. There is no tradition to follow the principles of design that would allow developers to avoid those mistakes. Andrew Hunt and David Thomas discuss these principles in their book Pragmatic Programmer. I’ve never seen those principles applied consciously in practice. Notorious user’s convenience drives design processes instead of mathematical purity. For some reason developers assume that their software will be used by brainless monkeys.

Software developers can decide to use a library without fully understanding the characteristics of the library. It’s unheard of in any other engineering discipline to use a material with unknown parameters.

Software is one of the most complex systems we’ve ever dealt with in the history of mankind. The horizon of available programs and libraries constantly expands. In these circumstances programmers are forced to deal with uncertainty. Writing a new piece of software is like sending a moon probe. Every time we argue whether the Moon is solid.

Fashion and market opportunity drive design decisions. The industry is not set up to make conscious decisions. We have many products with similar characteristics. Software community keeps creating new versions of the same thing introducing the same problems.

Why do we have five different databases?! Every new database claims to be better than all previous ones. After building the new database its developers create connectors to old databases. They want to be a part of the community. Otherwise the inertia will spew them. From outside it may look like conspiracy theory. Programmers create jobs for themselves. Companies waste their resources picking among all possible options or maintaining all of them.

In these cases I like to say that there is no need to look for conspiracy where you can explain everything with negligence. Instead of creating five databases or even creating one highly configurable database we need to create medium sized components that allow us to quickly construct any of those databases.

Every creator of a new database who realized another use case where the database can be useful should go back and break existing databases into smaller pieces with his new understanding of the domain and build his new database with some more approaches.

Every creator of a new database should go back, break existing databases into smaller pieces, and construct his database from those pieces. This approach may not be the fastest for him. But it will pave way for the future database builders. They will have components more suited for constructing for databases. Of course no venture capitalist will fund years of refactoring of old databases in order to build another one in one day.

In this situation I see open source as the solution to this issue. Only the users of the software themselves can build the right tool. They won’t care about marketing their tool. They will use this tool themselves. They know what they need. It makes the process of software development very similar science.

Unlike what software engineering does to programs, science refines and expands its theories. Many people tend to compare software engineering to manufacturing process. I find this comparison inaccurate. Software engineering is more like design process.

In manufacturing you need to create blueprints specific to the manufacturing line. Similar parts need to be redesigned for different manufacturing lines. Software engineering has this unique ability to reuse blueprints without implementing them in the physical world.

In software engineering every blueprint is already a product. This product is very malleable. As such, it doesn’t make sense to create another blueprint if you already have one. You need to go back split the initial blueprint, pick the parts that you need, complement with missing part, and ship your new product. You product will consist of parts of old blueprint and new blueprints.

In science we add layers of knowledge on top of existing layers. We restructure existing knowledge, but we never recreate existing concepts. Nobody has several implementations of Newtonian physics where gravity works slightly different in different implementations. Software engineering should employ similar approach. Reusable implementations of existing algorithms that can be assembled into anything we want like Lego bricks.

Modern programming languages are a break through in this area. But we still have a huge gap between the abstractions that modern languages provide and library primitives. Languages give us too small abstractions. Libraries give us too big abstractions. The great number of different languages only inhibits the formation of this middle layer.

So, let’s start picking our tools and libraries carefully without creating redundancy. Let’s tear existing tools apart in order to create new tools from those parts. Those smaller parts in their turn can serve somebody else in their projects.

And we need to have one language that is truly universal. We don’t have such a language yet. This language should produce truly composable primitives. So far it looks like Haskell is the one. Though the language research is still in progress.

I’m happy to report that in recent years great software with focused purpose started emerging. I would like to endorse suckless tools. They provide truly reusable pieces of software. Xmonad and similar minimalistic window managers perfectly complement suckless tools. These programs allow you to build desktop environment that can evolve with your understanding of efficient workspace.

Unix philosophy is another great example of how composable programs can be built. It looks like there is a way. We just need to try harder.