Production of software may continue to be craft based

Andrew Carnegie made his fortune in the steel industry, and his autobiography is a fascinating insight into the scientific vs. craft/folklore approach to smelting iron ore. Carnegie measured the processes involved in smelting; he tracked the input and outputs involved in the smelting process, and applied the newly available scientific knowledge (e.g., chemistry) to minimize the resources needed to extract iron from ore. Other companies continued to treat Iron smelting as a suck-it-and-see activity, driven by personal opinion and the application of techniques that had worked in the past.

The technique of using what-worked-last-time can be a successful strategy when the variability of the inputs is low. In the case of smelting Iron there was a lot of variability in the Iron ore, Limestone and Coke fed into the furnaces. The smelting companies in Carnegie’s day ‘solved’ this input variability problem by restricting their purchase of raw materials to mines that delivered material that worked last time.

Hiring an experienced chemist (the only smelting company to do so), Carnegie found out that the quality of ore (i.e., percentage Iron content) in some mines with a high reputation was much lower than the ore quality of some mines with a low reputation; Carnegie was able to obtain a low price for high quality ore because other companies did not appreciate its characteristics (and shunned using it). Other companies were unable to extract Iron from high quality ore because they stuck to using a process that worked for lower quality ore (the amount of Limestone and Coke added to the smelting process has to be adjusted based on the Iron content of the ore, otherwise the process may deliver poor results, or even fail to produce Iron; see chapter 13).

When Carnegie’s application of scientific knowledge, and his competitors’ opinion driven production, is combined with being a good businessman, it’s no surprise that Carnegie made a fortune from his Iron smelting business.

What are the parallels between iron smelting in Carnegie’s day and the software industry?

An obvious parallel is the industry dominance of opinion driven processes. But then, the lack of any scientific basis for the processes involved in building software systems would seem to make drawing parallels a pointless exercise.

Let’s assume that there was a scientific basis for some of the major processes involved in software engineering. Would any of these science-based processes be adopted?

The reason for using science based knowledge and mechanization is to reduce costs, which may lead to increased profits or just staying in business (in a Red Queen’s race).

Agriculture is an example of a business where science and mechanization dominate, and building construction is a domain where this has not happened. Perhaps building construction will become more mechanized when unknown missing components become available (mechanization was available for agricultural processes in the 1700s, but they did not spread for a century or two, e.g., threshing machines).

It’s possible to find parallels between software engineering and the smelting process, agriculture, and building construction. In fact, it parallels can probably be found between software engineering and any other major business domain.

Drawing parallels between software engineering and other major business domains creates a sense of familiarity. In practice, software is unlike most existing business domains in that software products are one-off creations of an intangible good, which has (virtually) zero cost of reproduction, while the economics of creating tangible goods (e.g., by smelting, sowing and reaping, or building houses) is all about reducing the far from zero cost of reproduction.

Perhaps the main take-away from the history of the production of tangible goods is that the scientific method has not always supplanted the craft approach to production.

Scientific management of software production

When Frederick Taylor investigated the performance of workers in various industries, at the start of the 1900’s, he found that workers organise their work to suit themselves; workers were capable of producing significantly more than they routinely produced. This was hardly news. What made Taylor’s work different was that having discovered the huge difference between actual worker output and what he calculated could be achieved in practice, he was able to change work practices to achieve close to what he had calculated to be possible. Changing work practices took several years, and the workers did everything they could to resist it (Taylor’s The principles of scientific management is an honest and revealing account of his struggles).

Significantly increasing worker output pushed company profits through the roof, and managers everywhere wanted a piece of the action; scientific management took off. Note: scientific management is not a science of work, it is a science of the management of other people’s work.

The scientific management approach has been successfully applied to production where most of the work can be reduced to purely manual activities (i.e., requiring little thinking by those who performed them). The essence of the approach is to break down tasks into the smallest number of component parts, to simplify these components so they can be performed by less skilled workers, and to rearrange tasks in a way that gives management control over the production process. Deskilling tasks increases the size of the pool of potential workers, decreasing labor costs and increasing the interchangeability of workers.

Given the almost universal use of this management technique, it is to be expected that managers will attempt to apply it to the production of software. The software factory was tried, but did not take-off. The use of chief programmer teams had its origins in the scarcity of skilled staff; the idea is that somebody who knows what they were doing divides up the work into chunks that can be implemented by less skilled staff. This approach is essentially the early stages of scientific management, but it did not gain traction (see “Programmers and Managers: The Routinization of Computer Programming in the United States” by Kraft).

The production of software is different in that once the first copy has been created, the cost of reproduction is virtually zero. The human effort invested in creating software systems is primarily cognitive. The division between management and workers is along the lines of what they think about, not between thinking and physical effort.

Software systems can be broken down into simpler components (assuming all the requirements are known), but can the implementation of these components be simplified such that they can be implemented by less skilled developers? The process of simplification is practical when designing a system for repetitive reproduction (e.g., making the same widget again and again), but the first implementation of anything is unlikely to be simple (and only one implementation is needed for software).

If it is not possible to break down the implementation such that most of the work is easy to do, can we at least hire the most productive developers?

How productive are different developers? Programmer productivity has been a hot topic since people started writing software, but almost no effective research has been done.

I have no idea how to measure programmer productivity, but I do have some ideas about how to measure their performance (a high performance programmer can have zero productivity by writing programs, faster than anybody else, that don’t do anything useful, from the client’s perspective).

When the same task is repeatedly performed by different people it is possible to obtain some measure of average/minimum/maximum individual performance.

Task performance improves with practice, and an individual’s initial task performance will depend on their prior experience. Measuring performance based on a single implementation of a task provides some indication of minimum performance. To obtain information on an individual’s maximum performance they need to be measured over multiple performances of the same task (and of course working in a team affects performance).

Should high performance programmers be paid more than low performance programmers (ignoring the issue of productivity)? I am in favour of doing this.

What about productivity payments, e.g., piece work?

This question is a minefield of issues. Manual workers have been repeatedly found to set informal quotas amongst themselves, i.e., setting a maximum on the amount they will produce during a shift (see “Money and Motivation: An Analysis of Incentives in Industry” by William Whyte). Thankfully, I don’t think I will be in a position to have to address this issue anytime soon (i.e., I don’t see a reliable measure of programmer productivity being discovered in the foreseeable future).