Is the software development industry trapped in a cycle of being ‘perpetually immature’?

A while back an xkcd comic on Voting Software attracted a lot of attention on Twitter for it’s alarmist comparison of the attitudes of the software development industry to other engineering disciplines and in particular, this statement:

“our entire field is bad at what we do, and if you rely on us, everyone will die”

From: https://www.xkcd.com/2030/
Voting Software
From: https://www.xkcd.com/2030/

This was widely shared and quoted on Twitter, and even shared by industry leaders such as Grady Booch:

https://twitter.com/Grady_Booch/status/1027291830101016576

There was one comment in reply to Booch’s tweet that particularly resonated with me:

https://twitter.com/Joerg1968/status/1027417862422573057

“I fear that perpetual adolscence is our curse and our gift – (we’re) always chasing the next shiny thing”

Joerg Muller-Kindt

This thought that as an industry we’re stuck in “perpetual adolescence” caught my attention. As an industry we struggle to advance. What’s unusual when you think back over the past 20 years and even further back looking at the history of our industry, there are developments and ‘movements’ where groups of individuals come together to champion an idea that at first seems to make a positive improvement to our industry as a whole, and then over a few more years the ideas fade away and seem to be forgotten. Some are even occasionally rediscovered again by another group of like-minded individuals years later.

The ‘perpetual adolescence’ of our industry as I see it is not that we’re stuck at a particular point in our industry’s growth and unable to progress, we do progress and advance. This growth however, appears to be in short cycles where we move forward, but then we go back to what we were doing before, and we’re stuck in a cycle of discovery and rediscovery. It’s not as bad as one step forward, two steps back, but it does appear to be something like one step forward, one step back. We’re never continually advancing, occasionally we move forward but we end up going backwards again. The progress of our industry never seems to be continually moving forward. Maybe this is typical of any industry in its infancy.

Examples:

  • The ‘software crisis‘ of the 1970s
  • Structured Analysis and Structured Design
  • Formal methods
  • 4GL development tools focused on developing specific styles of application (e.g. PowerBuilder, and client/server type systems)
  • The hype of Object Oriented languages
  • Fred Brooks seminal article “No Silver Bullet
  • CASE (Computer Aided Software Engineering) tools and code generation – mid 1990s
  • UML, Rational Unified Process (RUP)
  • The Agile Manifesto
  • The cycle of centralized vs decentralized (distributed) systems
  • The hype of Functional languages
  • Strongly typed vs dynamic languages
  • Platform independence vs platform dependence (of languages and technologies)
  • Software development as an engineering discipline or an art, and everything in between
  • Serverless, as the solution to all problems

There’s plenty of other ideas and concepts that could be part of this list, and I’m not highlighting anything in my list to say these ideas good or bad, but when you look back it’s interesting how ideas come and go over time. People come and go too, some noticeably bringing new ideas and passion with them, sometimes rediscovering ideas again from the past. Sometimes as champions leave the industry their ideas no longer have a voice and their ideas disappear with them too.

If our industry is still in its infancy, is this cyclical, repetitive behavior just the industry trying out new ideas to see what sticks? Or is it that the people actively involved in championing ideas come and go too, bringing ideas in and sometimes taking ideas with them when they move on? Does this mean that as an industry as experienced developers leave the industry and new generations of developers come in, are we doomed to continually repeat our mistakes of the past?

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