What can be learned from studying long gone development practices?

Current ideas about the best way of building a software system are heavily influenced by the ideas that captured the attention of previous generations of developers. Can anything of practical use be learned from studying long gone techniques for building software systems?

During the writing of my software engineering book, I was spending a lot of time researching the development techniques used during the twentieth century, and one day I suddenly realised that this was a waste of time. While early software developers tend to be eulogized today, the reality is that they were mostly people who had little idea what they were doing, who through personal competence of being in the right place at the right time managed to produce something good enough. On the whole, twentieth century software development techniques are only of historical interest. Yes, some timeless development principles were discovered, and these can be integrated into today’s techniques (which may also turn out to be of their-time).

My experience of software development in the late 1970s and 1980s is that there was rarely any connection between what management told the world about the development process, and how those reporting to the manager actually did the development.

If you are a manager in a world where software development is still very new, and you are given the job of managing the development of a software system, how do you go about it? A common approach is to apply the techniques that are already being used to run the manager’s organization. On a regular basis, managers came up with the idea of applying techniques from the science of industrial production (which is still happening today).

In the 1970s and 1980s there were usually very visible job hierarchies, and sharply defined roles. Organizations tended to use their existing job hierarchies and roles to create the structure for their software development employees. For years after I started work as a graduate, managers and secretaries were surprised to see me typing; secretaries typed, men did not type, and women developers fumed when they were treated like secretaries (because they had been seen typing).

The manual workers performed data entry, operated the computer (e.g., mounted tapes, and looked after the printer). The junior staff often started with the job title programmer, or perhaps junior programmer and there might be senior programmers; on paper these people wrote the code to implement the functionality specified by a systems analyst (or just analyst, or business analyst, perhaps with added junior or senior). Analysts did not to write code and programmers only coded what the specification they were given, at least according to management.

Pay level was set by the position in the job hierarchy, with those higher up earning more than those below them, and job titles/roles were also mapped to positions in the hierarchy. This created, in theory, a direct correspondence between pay and job title/role. In practice, organizations wanted to keep their productive employees, and so were flexible about the correspondence between pay and title, e.g., during their annual review some people were more interested in the status provided by a job title, while others wanted more money and did not care about job titles. Add into this mix the fact that pay/title levels rarely matched up between organizations, it soon became obvious to all that software job titles were a charade.

How should the people at the sharp end go about building a software system?

Structured programming was the widely cited technique in the 1970s. Consultants promoted their own variants, with Jackson structured programming being widely known in the UK, with regular courses and consultants offering to train staff. Today, structured programming appears remarkably simplistic, great for writing tiny programs (it has an academic pedigree), but not for anything larger than a thousand lines. Part of its appeal may have been this simplicity, many programs were small (because computer memory was measured in kilobytes) and management often thought that problems were simple (a recurring problem). There were a few adaptations that tried to address larger scale issues, e.g., Warnier/Orr structured programming.

The military were major employers of software developers in the 1960s and 1970s. In the US Work Breakdown Structure was mandated by the DOD for project development (for all projects, not just software), and in the UK we had MASCOT. These mandated development methodologies were created by committees, and have not been experimentally tested to be better/worse than any other approach.

I think the best management technique for successfully developing a software system in the 1970s and 1980s (and perhaps in the following decades), is based on being lucky enough to have a few very capable people, and then providing them with what is needed to get the job done while maintaining the fiction to upper management that the agreed bureaucratic plan is being followed.

There is one technique for producing a software system that rarely gets mentioned: keep paying for development until something good enough is delivered. Given the life-or-death need an organization might have for some software systems, paying what it takes may well have been a prevalent methodology during the early days of major software development.

To answer the question posed at the start of this post. What might be learned from a study of early software development techniques is the need for management to have lots of luck and to be flexible; funding is easier to obtain when managing a life-or-death project.

What can be learned from studying long gone development practices?

Current ideas about the best way of building a software system are heavily influenced by the ideas that captured the attention of previous generations of developers. Can anything of practical use be learned from studying long gone techniques for building software systems?

During the writing of my software engineering book, I was spending a lot of time researching the development techniques used during the twentieth century, and one day I suddenly realised that this was a waste of time. While early software developers tend to be eulogized today, the reality is that they were mostly people who had little idea what they were doing, who through personal competence of being in the right place at the right time managed to produce something good enough. On the whole, twentieth century software development techniques are only of historical interest. Yes, some timeless development principles were discovered, and these can be integrated into today’s techniques (which may also turn out to be of their-time).

My experience of software development in the late 1970s and 1980s is that there was rarely any connection between what management told the world about the development process, and how those reporting to the manager actually did the development.

If you are a manager in a world where software development is still very new, and you are given the job of managing the development of a software system, how do you go about it? A common approach is to apply the techniques that are already being used to run the manager’s organization. On a regular basis, managers came up with the idea of applying techniques from the science of industrial production (which is still happening today).

In the 1970s and 1980s there were usually very visible job hierarchies, and sharply defined roles. Organizations tended to use their existing job hierarchies and roles to create the structure for their software development employees. For years after I started work as a graduate, managers and secretaries were surprised to see me typing; secretaries typed, men did not type, and women developers fumed when they were treated like secretaries (because they had been seen typing).

The manual workers performed data entry, operated the computer (e.g., mounted tapes, and looked after the printer). The junior staff often started with the job title programmer, or perhaps junior programmer and there might be senior programmers; on paper these people wrote the code to implement the functionality specified by a systems analyst (or just analyst, or business analyst, perhaps with added junior or senior). Analysts did not to write code and programmers only coded what the specification they were given, at least according to management.

Pay level was set by the position in the job hierarchy, with those higher up earning more than those below them, and job titles/roles were also mapped to positions in the hierarchy. This created, in theory, a direct correspondence between pay and job title/role. In practice, organizations wanted to keep their productive employees, and so were flexible about the correspondence between pay and title, e.g., during their annual review some people were more interested in the status provided by a job title, while others wanted more money and did not care about job titles. Add into this mix the fact that pay/title levels rarely matched up between organizations, it soon became obvious to all that software job titles were a charade.

How should the people at the sharp end go about building a software system?

Structured programming was the widely cited technique in the 1970s. Consultants promoted their own variants, with Jackson structured programming being widely known in the UK, with regular courses and consultants offering to train staff. Today, structured programming appears remarkably simplistic, great for writing tiny programs (it has an academic pedigree), but not for anything larger than a thousand lines. Part of its appeal may have been this simplicity, many programs were small (because computer memory was measured in kilobytes) and management often thought that problems were simple (a recurring problem). There were a few adaptations that tried to address larger scale issues, e.g., Warnier/Orr structured programming.

The military were major employers of software developers in the 1960s and 1970s. In the US Work Breakdown Structure was mandated by the DOD for project development (for all projects, not just software), and in the UK we had MASCOT. These mandated development methodologies were created by committees, and have not been experimentally tested to be better/worse than any other approach.

I think the best management technique for successfully developing a software system in the 1970s and 1980s (and perhaps in the following decades), is based on being lucky enough to have a few very capable people, and then providing them with what is needed to get the job done while maintaining the fiction to upper management that the agreed bureaucratic plan is being followed.

There is one technique for producing a software system that rarely gets mentioned: keep paying for development until something good enough is delivered. Given the life-or-death need an organization might have for some software systems, paying what it takes may well have been a prevalent methodology during the early days of major software development.

To answer the question posed at the start of this post. What might be learned from a study of early software development techniques is the need for management to have lots of luck and to be flexible; funding is easier to obtain when managing a life-or-death project.

Having all the source code in one file

An early, and supposedly influential, analysis of the Coronavirus outbreak was based on results from a model whose 15,000 line C implementation was contained in a single file. There has been lots of tut-tutting from the peanut gallery, about the code all being in one file rather than distributed over many files. The source on Github has been heavily reworked.

Why do programmers work with all the code in one file, rather than split across multiple files? What are the costs and benefits of having the 15K of source in one file, compared to distributing it across multiple files?

There are two kinds of people who work with code all in one file, novices and really capable developers. Richard Stallman is an example of a very capable developer who worked using files containing huge amounts of code, as anybody who looked at the early sources of gcc will be all to familiar.

The benefit of having all the code in one file is that it is easy to find stuff and make global changes. If the source is scattered over multiple files, then working on the code entails knowing which file to look in to find whatever; there is a learning curve (these days screens have lots of pixels, and editors support multiple windows with a different file in each window; I’m sure lots of readers work like this).

Many years ago, when 64K was a lot of memory, I sometimes had to do developer support: people would come to me complaining that the computer was preventing them writing a larger program. What had happened was they had hit the capacity limit of the editor. The source now had to be spread over multiple files to get over this ‘limitation’. In practice people experienced the benefits of using multiple files, e.g., editor loading files faster (because they were a lot smaller) and reduced program build time (because only the code that changed needed to be recompiled).

These days, 15K of source can be loaded or compiled in a blink of an eye (unless a really cheap laptop is being used). Computing power has significantly reduced these benefits that used to exist.

What costs might be associated with keeping all the source in one file?

Monolithic code makes sharing difficult. I don’t know anything about the development environment within which these researched worked. If there were lots of different programs using the same algorithms, or reading/writing the same file formats, then code reuse often provides a benefit that makes it worthwhile splitting off the common functionality. But then the researchers has to learn how to build a program from multiple source files, which a surprising number are unwilling to do (at least it has always been surprising to me).

Within a research group, sharing across researchers might be a possible (assuming they are making some use of the same algorithms and file formats). Involving multiple people in the ongoing evolution of software creates a need for some coordination. At the individual level it may be more cost-efficient for people to have their own private copies of the source, with savings only occurring at the group level. With software development having a low status in academia, I don’t see any of the senior researchers willingly take on a management role, for this code. Perhaps one of the people working on the code is much better than the others (it often happens), but are they going to volunteer themselves as chief dogs body for the code?

In the world of Open Source, where source code is available, cut-and-paste is rampant (along with wholesale copying of files). Working with a copy of somebody else’s source removes a dependency, and if their code works well enough, then go for it.

A cost often claimed by the peanut gallery is that having all the code in a single file is a signal of buggy code. Given that most of the programmers who do this are novices, rather than really capable developers, such code is likely to contain many mistakes. But splitting the code up into multiple files will not reduce the number of mistakes it contains, just distribute them among the files. Correlation is not causation.

For an individual developer, the main benefit of splitting code across multiple files is that it makes developers think about the structure of their code.

For multi-person projects there are the added potential benefits of reusing code, and reducing the time spent reading other people’s code (it’s no fun having to deal with 10K lines when only a few functions are of interest).

I’m not saying that the original code is good, bad, or indifferent. What I am saying is that the having all the source in one file may, or may not, be the most effective way of working. It’s complicated, and I have no problem going with the flow (and limiting the size of the source files I write), but let’s not criticise others for doing what works for them.