Software Engineering State of the Practice: An Interview with Jerry Weinberg


to do stuff for this person on the outside better be substantially better than that. Otherwise, "I'm gonna cook at home and not go out to eat." Over time, this works to good effect.

The second good thing about it is this: People who might not have ever thought of going into a career in software development have more chance to find out about it. When I was a kid, and this was more than thirty years ago, I had read a couple things about computers and I knew that I wanted to work with computers. So, when I got to college I went to the guidance counselor and said, "I want to work with computers." Well, they had not even heard of computers let alone have a computer science curriculum or people on campus who had seen one or used one.

Nowadays, more people will have an idea of what it’s all about and maybe we'll get more people coming into the field who will be good at it. Before, we only got people who were math hotshots and ther's a whole lot more to the business than mathematics.

The worst of times is the same thing of course. People will put together a spreadsheet with one or two columns and formulas in it (column A plus column B) and now they think they are programmers. Then, if you're building embedded software in a pacemaker they think, "Well, that's just the same thing." They may have unreasonable expectations and impatience with the difficulty of really getting quality results. So, that's the good and the bad of it.

Before there was spreadsheet software, I actually wrote a number of spreadsheet programs and that was fairly difficult. I wrote them in assembly language and I can tell you that it's just not productive. It takes a certain amount of brains and capability to do that and which should not be required. Professional software people really shouldn’t have to be doing that.

As another example, we have an energy crisis now. Imagine if we made the people who know how to run electrical power stations go out and fix wiring or change people's light bulbs! Then they wouldn't have time to attack the really big problems that only they are qualified to solve. So the fact that people can now change their own light bulbs is a good thing for the profession!

SQP: But, heaven help us when the spreadsheet developer builds software for a pacemaker!
JW: Yeah, right, then you're in big trouble. There is a story they told me at Microsoft. Some years ago they found out that there was this hospital that was running their intensive care unit off an Excel spreadsheet! And, they were horrified, because it wasn't built to be life-critical software. So there will be things like that and that's the downside.

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