4,000 vs 400 vs 40 hours of software development practice

What is the skill difference between professional developers and newly minted computer science graduates?

Practice, e.g., 4,000 vs. 400 hours

People get better with practice, and after two years (around 4,000 hours) a professional developer will have had at least an order of magnitude more practice than most students; not just more practice, but advice and feedback from experienced developers. Most of these 4,000 hours are probably not the deliberate practice of 10,000 hours fame.

It’s understandable that graduates with a computing degree consider themselves to be proficient software developers; this opinion is based on personal experience (i.e., working with other students like themselves), and not having spent time working with professional developers. It’s not a joke that a surprising number of academics don’t appreciate the student/professional difference, the problem is that some academics only ever get to see a limit range of software development expertise (it’s a question of incentives).

Surveys of student study time have found that for Computer science, around 50% of students spend 11 hours or more, per week, in taught study and another 11 hours or more doing independent learning; let’s take 11 hours per week as the mean, and 30 academic weeks in a year. How much of the 330 hours per year of independent learning time is spent creating software (that’s 1,000 hours over a three-year degree, assuming that any programming is required)? I have no idea, and picked 40% because it matched up with 4,000.

Based on my experience with recent graduates, 400 hours sounds high (I have no idea whether an average student spends 4-hours per week doing programming assignments). While a rare few are excellent, most are hopeless. Perhaps the few hours per week nature of their coding means that they are constantly relearning, or perhaps they are just cutting and pasting code from the Internet.

Most graduates start their careers working in industry (around 50% of comp sci/maths graduates work in an ICT profession; UK higher-education data), which means that those working in industry are ideally placed to compare the skills of recent graduates and professional developers. Professional developers have first-hand experience of their novice-level ability. This is not a criticism of computing degrees; there are only so many hours in a day and lots of non-programming material to teach.

Many software developers working in industry don’t have a computing related degree (I don’t). Lots of non-computing STEM degrees give students the option of learning to program (I had to learn FORTRAN, no option). I don’t have any data on the percentage of software developers with a computing related degree, and neither do I have any data on the average number of hours non-computing STEM students spend on programming; I’ve cosen 40 hours to flow with the sequence of 4’s (some non-computing STEM students spend a lot more than 400 hours programming; I certainly did). The fact that industry hires a non-trivial number of non-computing STEM graduates as software developers suggests that, for practical purposes, there is not a lot of difference between 400 and 40 hours of practice; some companies will take somebody who shows potential, but no existing coding knowledge, and teach them to program.

Many of those who apply for a job that involves software development never get past the initial screening; something like 80% of people applying for a job that specifies the ability to code, cannot code. This figure is based on various conversations I have had with people about their company’s developer recruitment experiences; it is not backed up with recorded data.

Some of the factors leading to this surprisingly high value include: people attracted by the salary deciding to apply regardless, graduates with a computing degree that did not require any programming (there is customer demand for computing degrees, and many people find programming is just too hard for them to handle, so universities offer computing degrees where programming is optional), concentration of the pool of applicants, because those that can code exit the applicant pool, leaving behind those that cannot program (who keep on applying).

Apologies to regular readers for yet another post on professional developers vs. students, but I keep getting asked about this issue.

Anthropological studies of software engineering

Anthropology is the study of humans, and as such it is the top level research domain for many of the human activities involved in software engineering. What has been discovered by the handful of anthropologists who have spent time researching the tiny percentage of humans involved in writing software?

A common ‘discovery’ is that developers don’t appear to be doing what academics in computing departments claim they do; hardly news to those working in industry.

The main subfields relevant to software are probably: cultural anthropology and social anthropology (in the US these are combined under the name sociocultural anthropology), plus linguistic anthropology (how language influences social life and shapes communication). There is also historical anthropology, which is technically what historians of computing do.

For convenience, I’m labelling anybody working in an area covered by anthropology as an anthropologist.

I don’t recommend reading any anthropology papers unless you plan to invest a lot of time in some subfield. While I have read lots of software engineering papers, anthropologist’s papers on this topic are often incomprehensible to me. These papers might best be described as anthropology speak interspersed with software related terms.

Anthropologists write books, and some of them are very readable to a more general audience.

The Art of Being Human: A Textbook for Cultural Anthropology by Wesch is a beginner’s introduction to its subject.

Ethnography, which explores cultural phenomena from the point of view of the subject of the study, is probably the most approachable anthropological research. Ethnographers spend many months living with a remote tribe, community, or nowadays a software development company, and then write-up their findings in a thesis/report/book. Examples of approachable books include: “Engineering Culture: Control and Commitment in a High-Tech Corporation” by Kunda, who studied a large high-tech company in the mid-1980s; “No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and its Hidden Costs” by Ross, who studied an internet startup that had just IPO’ed, and “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking” by Coleman, who studied hacker culture.

Linguistic anthropology is the field whose researchers are mostly likely to match developers’ preconceived ideas about what humanities academics talk about. If I had been educated in an environment where Greek and nineteenth century philosophers were the reference points for any discussion, then I too would use this existing skill set in my discussions of source code (philosophers of source code did not appear until the twentieth century). Who wouldn’t want to apply hermeneutics to the interpretation of source code (the field is known as Critical code studies)?

It does not help that the software knowledge of many of the academics appears to have been acquired by reading computer books from the 1940s and 1950s.

The most approachable linguistic anthropology book I have found, for developers, is: The Philosophy of Software Code and Mediation in the Digital Age by Berry (not that I have skimmed many).

Research software code is likely to remain a tangled mess

Research software (i.e., software written to support research in engineering or the sciences) is usually a tangled mess of spaghetti code that only the author knows how to use. Very occasionally I encounter well organized research software that can be used without having an email conversation with the author (who has invariably spent years iterating through many versions).

Spaghetti code is not unique to academia, there is plenty to be found in industry.

Structural differences between academia and industry make it likely that research software will always be a tangled mess, only usable by the person who wrote it. These structural differences include:

  • writing software is a low status academic activity; it is a low status activity in some companies, but those involved don’t commonly have other higher status tasks available to work on. Why would a researcher want to invest in becoming proficient in a low status activity? Why would the principal investigator spend lots of their grant money hiring a proficient developer to work on a low status activity?

    I think the lack of status is rooted in researchers’ lack of appreciation of the effort and skill needed to become a proficient developer of software. Software differs from that other essential tool, mathematics, in that most researchers have spent many years studying mathematics and understand that effort/skill is needed to be able to use it.

    Academic performance is often measured using citations, and there is a growing move towards citing software,

  • many of those writing software know very little about how to do it, and don’t have daily contact with people who do. Recent graduates are the pool from which many new researchers are drawn. People in industry are intimately familiar with the software development skills of recent graduates, i.e., the majority are essentially beginners; most developers in industry were once recent graduates, and the stream of new employees reminds them of the skill level of such people. Academics see a constant stream of people new to software development, this group forms the norm they have to work within, and many don’t appreciate the skill gulf that exists between a recent graduate and an experienced software developer,
  • paid a lot less. The handful of very competent software developers I know working in engineering/scientific research are doing it for their love of the engineering/scientific field in which they are active. Take this love away, and they will find that not only does industry pay better, but it also provides lots of interesting projects for them to work on (academics often have the idea that all work in industry is dull).

    I have met people who have taken jobs writing research software to learn about software development, to make themselves more employable outside academia.

Does it matter that the source code of research software is a tangled mess?

The author of a published paper is supposed to provide enough information to enable their work to be reproduced. It is very unlikely that I would be able to reproduce the results in a chemistry or genetics paper, because I don’t know enough about the subject, i.e., I am not skilled in the art. Given a tangled mess of source code, I think I could reproduce the results in the associated paper (assuming the author was shipping the code associated with the paper; I have encountered cases where this was not true). If the code failed to build correctly, I could figure out (eventually) what needed to be fixed. I think people have an unrealistic expectation that research code should just build out of the box. It takes a lot of work by a skilled person to create to build portable software that just builds.

Is it really cost-effective to insist on even a medium-degree of buildability for research software?

I suspect that the lifetime of source code used in research is just as short and lonely as it is in other domains. One study of 214 packages associated with papers published between 2001-2015 found that 73% had not been updated since publication.

I would argue that a more useful investment would be in testing that the software behaves as expected. Many researchers I have spoken to have not appreciated the importance of testing. A common misconception is that because the mathematics is correct, the software must be correct (completely ignoring the possibility of silly coding mistakes, which everybody makes). Commercial software has the benefit of user feedback, for detecting some incorrect failures. Research software may only ever have one user.

Research software engineer is the fancy title now being applied to people who write the software used in research. Originally this struck me as an example of what companies do when they cannot pay people more, they give them a fancy title. Recently the Society of Research Software Engineering was setup. This society could certainly help with training, but I don’t see it making much difference with regard status and salary.

Waiting for the funerals: culture in software engineering research

A while ago I changed my opinion about why software engineering academics very rarely got/get involved in empirical/experimental based research.

I used to think it was because commercial data was so hard to get hold of.

In practice commercial data does not seem to be that hard to get hold of. At least for academics in business schools, and I have not experienced problems gaining access to commercial data (but it is very hard finding a company willing to allow me to make an anonymised version of its data public). There are many evidence-based papers published using confidential data (i.e., data that cannot be made public).

I now think the reasons for non-evidence-based research are culture and preference for non-people based research.

In the academic world the software side of computing often has a strong association is mathematics departments (I know that in some universities it is in engineering). I have had several researchers tell me that it would raise eyebrows, if they started doing more people oriented research, because this kind of research is viewed as being the purview of other departments.

Software had its algorithm era, which is now long gone; but unfortunately, many academics still live in a world where the mindset of TEOCP holds sway.

Baffled looks are common, when I talk to software engineering academics. They are baffled by the idea that it is possible to run experiments in software engineering, and they are baffled by the idea of evidence-based theories. I am still struggling to understand the mindset that produces the arguments they make against the possibility of experiments and evidence being useful.

In the past I know that some researchers have had problems getting experiment-based papers published. Hopefully this problem is now in the past, given that empirical/experimental papers are becoming more common.

Max Planck, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, found that physicists trained in what we now call classical physics, were not willing to teach or adopt a quantum mechanics world view; Planck observed: “Science advances one funeral at a time”.