The world view of research in software engineering

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

For a long time I have been trying to figure out why so much research in software engineering is so obviously unconnected to the reality of software development.

As might have been guessed, the answer has been staring me in the face for some time.

Many researchers in software engineering have a modified mathematicians’ world view of research, i.e., investigate things we find interesting (the mathematicians’ view) and some years from now industry will discover our work and apply it (the modification). I have had multiple academics essentially say this to me and I had not appreciated that I need to argue against a world view (not specific points of that view). This mathematician world view also explains why my questions about evidence receive such baffled looks; and, I am regularly told that experiments cannot be done, or are meaningless, in software engineering research.

Which research field’s world view might be closest to software engineering? I would nominate drug discovery.

Claims made by researchers in drug discovery are expected to be backed up with evidence. There are problems to be solved (e.g., diseases to be cured) and researchers try out ideas by running experiments. They don’t put lots of time and effort into creating a new drug, propose this drug as cure for some disease and then wait for industry to run some experiments, to see if the claims are true. I’m a regular reader of In The Pipeline, an interesting drug discover blog that is accessible to those outside the field.

How do I argue against a world view? I have no idea; even if I did, I am not looking to start a crusade.

At least I now have a model of the situation that makes sense. Next month, I will be attending some workshops where there will be lots of researchers and I will get to try out my new insight.