Software engineering is fertile ground for the belief in silver bullets

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

The idea that there exists some wonderful technique or methodology, which solves one or more perceived software engineering problems, was given a name in 1986; the title of Brooks’ paper No Silver Bullet is a big clue that the author does not think it exists. Indeed, over the years a steady stream of papers have attempted to dispel the idea that silver bullets exist. These attempts have two things in common: the use of reasoning and facts to make their case, and failure to dispel the idea that there are no silver bullets in software engineering.

Now, I am a great fan of reasoning using facts, but I am also a fan of evidence driven approaches to solving problems. There is now over 30 years of evidence that reasoning using facts is not an effective means of convincing people that silver bullets don’t exist.

Belief in silver bullets will not go away until it ceases to be in some peoples’ interest for them to exist.

If you have something to sell, there is a benefit to having customers believe in silver bullets: the product/research will dramatically improve performance, time to market, costs, profitability, etc…

Belief in silver bullets is not unfounded. Computing has a 70-year history of things going faster, getting cheaper and systems doing what was once thought impossible. The press has bought into this and amazing success stories abound. Having worked on a few projects that delivered faster/cheaper/impossible systems, I know that no silver bullets were involved, just lots of hard work and sometimes being in the right place at the right time. Hard work and happenstance don’t make for feel-good headlines, and rarely get mentioned in the press.

When faced with a problem, the young and inexperienced tend to be optimists; there must be a silver bullet better way of doing this that is fast/cheap/efficient. The computing field has been evolving so rapidly that many of those involved are young and inexperienced; fertile ground for belief in silver bullets to flourish.

Consequences of a belief in silver bullets in industry include, time/cost overruns on projects and money wasted on tools that are never used. In academia a belief in silver bullets results in the pointless invention of new programming languages, methodologies, programming techniques, etc.

The belief in silver bullets will not fade away until the rate of change in computing slows to a crawl and most of those involved have gained substantial experience from which they can see that results come from hard work (and some amount of luck).