Evidence-based Medicine for Software

Evidence-based Medicine for Software
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Have you heard of "evidence-based medicine?" It's a relatively new trend in medicine based on the idea that what doctors do should be based on the evidence of what works and what doesn't. What's scary as a patient is the thought that this is a new idea. What is it replacing? Voo-doo-based medicine?

At least the field of medicine has accepted that evidence matters. So much better than not!

Let's turn to software. Have you ever heard of evidence-based software? Of course not! There is no such thing! How software is built is based on loads of things, but sadly, evidence is not among them. Among other things, this explains why software projects fail, and/or result in expensive, rigid bloat-ware that is riddled with errors and security holes.

The Golden Globes 2016

One of the reasons to watch the Golden Globes awards ceremony is for the fashion. Everyone knows it -- which is why there's a multi-hour Red Carpet pre-show, and even a pre-show to the red carpet show.

You watch the show if you want to see what the new fashions are. You wouldn't want to look silly, would you? If you watched this year's show, you could see Amanda Peet looking really nice:

And you could see Sarah Jessica Parker looking like something else altogether:

I heard the expert on one of the shows talking about the new colors and lines in the dresses, something we'd see more of in the upcoming year.

What's the "best" fashion? The one leading people seem to like. What will be the best fashion next year? About all you can be certain about is that it will be something different from what was most-liked this year.

Software development fashions

The methods used in software development are selected with just about the same criteria as the leading fashions in dresses. Who's wearing what? What do leading people think? What did I use (wear) last time that got admiring looks?

Fashions come into software development. They get promoted. They get used and mis-used, adapted and morphed. Programmers take them with varying degrees of seriousness. Wherever you're programming, you have to more or less go along with the prevailing fashion. If everyone else crosses themselves, you'd better too. If there's a daily stand-up, you'd better stand up when everyone else does, and not look too abstracted or bored.

Effectiveness, Productivity and Quality

In fashion, you want the admiration of other people who look at what you're wearing. In software, since you spend most of your time building software, it's nice to have the admiration of people who look at you building software.

But unfortunately, other points of view sometime intrude. Managers want to know about budgets and productivity and deadlines. After the software is put into use, there are ignorant and annoying users to contend with. What you've worked so hard to build is never enough. They complain about it! Crashes, performance, quality issues? Sometimes people get upset. And security? Rule number one is keep it quiet! The last thing we need is this getting into the papers!

Then you find out that most outsiders could care less what goes on in the sausage factory. Whether it's organized or chaotic, ugly or pretty, in the end all they seem to care about is how the sausage tastes. These simple-minded people can only keep one thing in their heads at a time, and that one thing is most often: the results!

Wouldn't it be nice if we had a way of picking through the dozens of software methods that are in widespread use, and based on the evidence, settle on just a couple that were the best that actually ... produced the best results!!?? Or maybe that's just too radical a thought.

That's why we need something like evidence-based software -- or at least acknowledgement that it could help things out.

Coda: EBSE: Evidence-Based Software Engineering

I started writing this blog post based on the comparison to evidence-based medicine as a way to frame the fashion-based chaos that surprisingly rules the day in this highly exactly field of work. I certainly had never heard the phrase "evidence-based software." But as a check before clicking "publish," I thought I'd better do a quick search. Imagine my surprise when I found that there is, indeed, something called EBSE, evidence-based software engineering, explicitly inspired by the analogy in medicine!

I've interacted with a large number of software engineering groups over the last twenty-plus years, and been inside a few for many years prior to that. The groups have been highly varied and diverse, to put it mildly. I've seen loads of trends, languages, methodologies and tools. And never -- not once! -- have I heard of the existence of EBSE. It should be just what we need, right?

So I dove in. It's sad. Or pathetic. Both, actually.

There's a moribund website on the subject:

  • It doesn't have a domain name, it's just hosted at some obscure university in the UK midlands.
  • The last "news" is from 2011. Not much happenin'...
  • All the "evidence" appears to come from published academic papers -- you know, those things that practicing software people absolutely depend on.
  • "The core tool of the evidence-based paradigm is the Systematic Literature Review (SLR)..." The SLR is basically a meta-analysis of lots of published academic papers. Whoopee!
  • The whole thing is organized "using the knowledge areas defined by the SWEBOK."
  • I couldn't find a single useful thing in the whole pile of words.

The "SWEBOK"??? Another thing I've never heard of. It turns out it's an official IEEE guide to the Software Engineering Body of Knowledge. This essential guide tells us everything that leading academics are convinced are must-knows, "generally accepted knowledge about software engineering." If only I had known! Think how much trouble I could have saved myself and others over the years! Best of all, it's practically up-to-date -- just over 12 years old!

EBSE and SWEBOK are great demonstrations of just how bad things are in the software field: even when you start with a great metaphor, you still make no progress if you continue to accept as gospel the broken assumptions that the field's academics take to be eternal TRUTH. The sad fact is, math and computer science are at fundamental odds with effective software development. As I've shown. Sad, but true.

Having something like evidence-based medicine for software instead of the ugly, ineffective chaos we have today would be nice. EBSE is a nice name, but as a reality, a non-starter.

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