Max Kanat-Alexander: Code Simplicity: The Science of Software Development (Kindle edition). O'Reilly, 2012, B007NZU848.
The goal of this ambitious new book from O'Reilly, stated in its preface, is to "[lay] out scientific laws for software development, in a simple form that anybody can read." What it actually does, however, is demonstrate that its author doesn't really know what science is, or what science has already told us about his chosen subject.
Let's start with the first point. Kanat-Alexander's definition of a science is the traditional one: it is composed of facts that have been collected and organized, and contains general truths or basic laws that have been validated experimentally. Where he comes up short is in applying the last part of that definition. There are plenty of sweeping claims, many of which I actually agree with, but where's the data? Where are the experiments (or at least studies) showing how that data backs up his claims, and that those claims aren't actually refuted by any data? The only hard evidence on offer in the whole book is a table in chapter 5 showing how five files changed over time. The files aren't identified; neither are the projects they came from, and we're not told the timescale of the changes (was it days or years?).
The second failing of this book is that it completely ignores what we actually do know about programs and programmers. 20% of the way through the book , as he's trying to explain how we got into our present mess, he writes:
Then along came The Mythical Man Month, a book by Fred Brooks, who actually looked at the process of software development in a real project and pointed our some facts about it... He didn't come up with a whole science, but he did make some good observations... After that came a flurry of software development methods: the Rational Unified Process, the Capability Maturity Model, Agile Software Development, and many others. And that, basically, brings us up to where we are today: lots of methods, but no real science.
Well, no. Where we actually are today is in the middle of an explosion in real scientific understanding of how programmers work, how software evolves, how likely it is to contain bugs, and dozens of related topics. If this year matches 2011, something like 200 new peer-reviewed studies will be published, some by academics, and some by researchers at IBM, Microsoft Research, and other industrial labs. That's a lot for a working programmer to read, which is why we put together Making Software (ironically, also published by O'Reilly) to summarize what we actually know and why we believe it's true.
So what are Kanat-Alexander's "laws", and how substantial are they?
The author of this book is clearly intelligent and passionate about his craft. He has undoubtedly written and shipped more good software in the last ten years than I ever will. If he doesn't know what we've discovered about software engineering in the last forty years, that's a clear sign that we're not doing our jobs properly. It isn't enough to be right: if we want our work to matter, we must communicate it to others, and this book shows that we have clearly failed to do that.
 How do you specify a location in an e-book that doesn't have page numbers?Comments powered by Disqus