Production of software may continue to be craft based

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Andrew Carnegie made his fortune in the steel industry, and his autobiography is a fascinating insight into the scientific vs. craft/folklore approach to smelting iron ore. Carnegie measured the processes involved in smelting; he tracked the input and outputs involved in the smelting process, and applied the newly available scientific knowledge (e.g., chemistry) to minimize the resources needed to extract iron from ore. Other companies continued to treat Iron smelting as a suck-it-and-see activity, driven by personal opinion and the application of techniques that had worked in the past.

The technique of using what-worked-last-time can be a successful strategy when the variability of the inputs is low. In the case of smelting Iron there was a lot of variability in the Iron ore, Limestone and Coke fed into the furnaces. The smelting companies in Carnegie’s day ‘solved’ this input variability problem by restricting their purchase of raw materials to mines that delivered material that worked last time.

Hiring an experienced chemist (the only smelting company to do so), Carnegie found out that the quality of ore (i.e., percentage Iron content) in some mines with a high reputation was much lower than the ore quality of some mines with a low reputation; Carnegie was able to obtain a low price for high quality ore because other companies did not appreciate its characteristics (and shunned using it). Other companies were unable to extract Iron from high quality ore because they stuck to using a process that worked for lower quality ore (the amount of Limestone and Coke added to the smelting process has to be adjusted based on the Iron content of the ore, otherwise the process may deliver poor results, or even fail to produce Iron; see chapter 13).

When Carnegie’s application of scientific knowledge, and his competitors’ opinion driven production, is combined with being a good businessman, it’s no surprise that Carnegie made a fortune from his Iron smelting business.

What are the parallels between iron smelting in Carnegie’s day and the software industry?

An obvious parallel is the industry dominance of opinion driven processes. But then, the lack of any scientific basis for the processes involved in building software systems would seem to make drawing parallels a pointless exercise.

Let’s assume that there was a scientific basis for some of the major processes involved in software engineering. Would any of these science-based processes be adopted?

The reason for using science based knowledge and mechanization is to reduce costs, which may lead to increased profits or just staying in business (in a Red Queen’s race).

Agriculture is an example of a business where science and mechanization dominate, and building construction is a domain where this has not happened. Perhaps building construction will become more mechanized when unknown missing components become available (mechanization was available for agricultural processes in the 1700s, but they did not spread for a century or two, e.g., threshing machines).

It’s possible to find parallels between software engineering and the smelting process, agriculture, and building construction. In fact, it parallels can probably be found between software engineering and any other major business domain.

Drawing parallels between software engineering and other major business domains creates a sense of familiarity. In practice, software is unlike most existing business domains in that software products are one-off creations of an intangible good, which has (virtually) zero cost of reproduction, while the economics of creating tangible goods (e.g., by smelting, sowing and reaping, or building houses) is all about reducing the far from zero cost of reproduction.

Perhaps the main take-away from the history of the production of tangible goods is that the scientific method has not always supplanted the craft approach to production.

Quality control in a zero cost of replication business

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

When a new manufacturing material becomes available, its use is often integrated with existing techniques, e.g., using scientific management techniques for software production.

Customers want reliable products, and companies that sell unreliable products don’t make money (and may even lose lots of money).

Quality assurance of manufactured products is a huge subject, and lots of techniques have been developed.

Needless to say, quality assurance techniques applied to the production of hardware are often touted (and sometimes applied) as the solution for improving the quality of software products (whatever quality is currently being defined as).

There is a fundamental difference between the production of hardware and software:

  • Hardware is designed, a prototype made and this prototype refined until it is ready to go into production. Hardware production involves duplicating an existing product. The purpose of quality control for hardware production is ensuring that the created copies are close enough to identical to the original that they can be profitably sold. Industrial design has to take into account the practicalities of mass production, e.g., can this device be made at a low enough cost.
  • Software involves the same design, prototype, refinement steps, in some form or another. However, the final product can be perfectly replicated at almost zero cost, e.g., downloadable file(s), burn a DVD, etc.

Software production is a once-off process, and applying techniques designed to ensure the consistency of a repetitive process don’t sound like a good idea. Software production is not at all like mass production (the build process comes closest to this form of production).

Sometimes people claim that software development does involve repetition, in that a tiny percentage of the possible source code constructs are used most of the time. The same is also true of human communications, in that a few words are used most of the time. Does the frequent use of a small number of words make speaking/writing a repetitive process in the way that manufacturing identical widgets is repetitive?

The virtually zero cost of replication (and distribution, via the internet, for many companies) does more than remove a major phase of the traditional manufacturing process. Zero cost of replication has a huge impact on the economics of quality control (assuming high quality is considered to be equivalent to high reliability, as measured by number of faults experienced by customers). In many markets it is commercially viable to ship software products that are believed to contain many mistakes, because the cost of fixing them is so very low; unlike the cost of hardware, which is non-trivial and involves shipping costs (if only for a replacement).

Zero defects is not an economically viable mantra for many software companies. When companies employ people to build the same set of items, day in day out, there is economic sense in having them meet together (e.g., quality circles) to discuss saving the company money, by reducing production defects.

Many software products have a short lifespan, source code has a brief and lonely existence, and many development projects are never shipped to paying customers.

In software development companies it makes economic sense for quality circles to discuss the minimum number of known problems they need to fix, before shipping a product.