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The Ongoing Software Crisis

posted under category: Software Quality on January 30, 2020 at 10:21 pm by Nathan

The official software crisis was about computing power versus software power in the 1960’s. Hardware was outpacing software, which led to the need for higher level languages, better development methodologies, and more workers to write programs. Ask anyone in their later years who had been a programmer for their career and you may learn more than an earful about these problems. Something ongoing from the old software crisis were some of the signs and symptoms that we see today:

  • Software is over budget
  • Software is delivered late
  • Software is low quality
  • Programs run slowly
  • Results don’t meet requirements
  • Code is unmanageable
  • Sometimes applications are never completed, vaporware

We see a good amount of that today. Personally, I see it all over enterprise software, and frequently in outsourced programs – that’s another topic for another day. I also see it in inexperienced programmers, especially when they are allowed to work alone, and sometimes in development done outside of normal software companies and departments. For real though, sometimes we even see it in more experienced looking teams as well.

The struggle is real. A lot of this software crisis is still in effect. It just doesn’t act like it did back before I was born.

Higher level languages help the crisis because they can be more expressive and produce better applications. This is why JavaScript is great - at great expense to the CPU, JS executes in a VM in a browser in a windowing OS, many levels removed from actual hardware. CPUs used to double in throughput every 18-24 months (Moore’s law), but those days are mostly gone as we struggle against the limits of atomic sizes. That means our higher level programs now have to act like lower level programs. This is why JVM and .NET runtime applications succeed, and why Chrome’s V8 engine has been so successful. They can run abstracted languages as if they were one layer closer to the hardware.

Better software lifecycle processes typically help with late, over-budget software and with missed requirements. I personally have seen how Agile was a giant victory over the 6-month deployment cycle in years before. Tools like CI/CD enablers can put working code in front of our users even faster. Unfortunately, these processes don’t remove the problem of low-quality code, though they help mitigate many of the hurdles.

Isn’t that just software life though? We struggle through it every day in order to make the world a better place. That’s the programming life. That’s what we get paid to do. Maybe it’s kind of the dark side, sure, but that’s where we live. What do you think? Is the software crisis still a term worth using today?

Nathan is a software developer at The Boeing Company in Charleston, SC. He is essentially a big programming nerd. Really, you could say that makes him a nerd among nerds. Aside from making software for the web, he plays with tech toys and likes to think about programming's big picture while speaking at conferences and generally impressing people with massive nerdiness and straight-faced sarcastic humor. Nathan got his programming start writing batch files in DOS. It should go without saying, but these thought and opinions have nothing to do with Boeing in any way.
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