21 Aug On software problems, Britain, India, racism, Clement Attle…
Letters are welcome via e-mail to [email protected]
When the computer says no
The software problems of Boeing, General Electric, Volkswagen and others are not new (Schumpeter, July 18th). The term “software engineering” was coined in the 1960s in the hope that traditional engineering methods could be applied to software development. Today, we routinely use systems that are far more complex and robust, which have largely been built by developers trained in computer science and software engineering. There is fierce competition to employ those skills; some companies hire graduates from coding schools with as little as three months of training.
Schumpeter noted the impact of rapidly changing technology on system quality. This is known as “technical debt”, an accumulation of problems with varying severity that makes it difficult and expensive to maintain the code. Some of the world’s critical software systems are based on code originally written over 40 years ago. The large legacy companies rely heavily on writing their own proprietary code with its high rate of errors, rather than including open-source software components that reduce the amount of new code, which would minimise the number of bugs. Our ability to develop software has improved, but companies that construct physical systems, such as cars, continue to underestimate what it takes to build high-quality software on time and on budget.
Professor of software management practice
Carnegie Mellon University, Silicon Valley
Mountain View, California
There are three other factors that explain why companies struggle with software projects. First, the general lack of knowledge about information literacy and computational thinking: many managers have never had any formal training in them. Second, software projects often change their scope and direction half way through the exercise. It is good to test new ideas, but that comes with a cost or delay that many executives struggle to understand. Imagine building a bridge and every week the plan changes. Would you expect it to be built on time and on budget?
And third, many “visionaries” love large transformational projects that turn the company upside down. But software is much more about improving the experience of people who work with it. Companies should start small and scale up where value emerges, not the other way around.
The main risk-mitigation strategy is to use dependencies that everyone else is using. The thinking goes that someone else would surely have audited the code or found issues with it. This works, until it doesn’t. A dependency might disappear or it might inject malicious code into the application. Most programmers lack the knowledge and inclination to search for issues in this vast stack.
We build skyscrapers of Lego, focusing on the top and only paying attention to our dependencies when the skyscraper starts swaying. This is not laziness. If every programmer tried to rewrite their stack it would take decades, and the world would have moved on. Besides, the next project is due in 14 days.
Engineer at Facebook
Your anaemic plan for “levelling up” Britain would do little to achieve that goal (“Levelling up Britain”, August 1st). You didn’t mention HS2, a high-speed rail link, the best and most ambitious scheme to (literally) bridge the north, Midlands and south in England and link London far better to regional cities. You praised devolution while ignoring the weak tax base of the north: handing down tax-raising powers without real resources is worse than useless. And you treated as a joke a serious proposal to relocate Parliament to the north, which could do more than any other political reform to rebalance Britain.
House of Lords
* I read your article addressing regional inequality in Britain with interest. I noted that you implied that all of the south-east is relatively prosperous and that it is only northern regions of Britain which require ‘levelling up’. This is not the case: huge inequalities exist within the south-east just as they do in the north. The Southampton Itchen constituency bears striking similarities to deprived areas in the north despite being located in leafy Hampshire. Once the home of the Spitfire, shipbuilding and the Ford Transit van, it is also post-industrial. Unemployment today is higher and average wages are lower than some ‘red wall’ northern constituencies.
To truly level-up Britain the government needs to address inequality in all deprived areas, including the south-east. Investment in regional infrastructure is critical to deliver jobs with career prospects, good pay and job security–it takes almost as long to travel by train from Southampton to similarly left-behind Portsmouth as it does to get to London.
Whilst I recognise much of what your article describes in the north you could just as easily have been writing about my constituency.
Member of Parliament for Southampton Itchen
You mentioned that few Hindus in India observe strict ritual purity or consider Dalits literally untouchable (“No escape”, July 25th). Yet about a quarter of the respondents to the India Human Development Survey of 2011-12 were averse to Dalits entering their kitchen or sharing utensils. The figure cuts across religious groups (30% for Hindus), castes and geography.
AMOL SINGH RASWAN
“See no evil” (August 8th) observed that after the second world war philosophy that challenged racism “tended to flow westward” from Europe to America. However, in the decades leading up to the war it was the American concept of race that affected events in Europe. The Nazis, for example, were influenced by America’s virulently racist laws of the late 19th and early 20th-centuries, particularly with regards to eugenics…