Okay, the main conference started today, and we kick off with the keynote speaker – Steve McConnell talking about “The 10 most powerful ideas in software engineering”. Here’s my thoughts: when magazines are short of ideas for an upcoming issue, they resort to the cheap journalist’s trick of inventing top ten lists. It makes for easy reading filler, that never really engages the brain. Unfortunately, this approach also leads to dull talks. The best keynotes have a narrative thread. They tell a story. They build up ideas in interesting new ways. The top ten format kills this kind of narrative stone dead (except perhaps when used in parody). Okay, so I didn’t like the format, but what about the content? Steve walked through ten basic concepts that we’ve been teaching in our introductory software engineering courses for years, so I learned nothing new. Maybe this would be okay as a talk to junior programmers who missed out on software engineering courses in school. For ICSE keynotes, I expect a lot more – I’d have liked at least some sharper insights, or better marshalling of the evidence. I’m afraid I have to add this to my long list of poor ICSE keynotes. Which is okay, because ICSE keynotes always suck – even when the chosen speakers are normally brilliant thinkers and presenters. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong later this week… For what it’s worth, here’s his top ten list (which he said were in no particular order):

  1. Software Development work is performed by human beings. Human factors make a huge difference in the performance of a project.
  2. Incrementalism is essential. The benefits are feedback, feedback, and feedback! (on the software, on the development process, on the developer capability). And making small mistakes that prevent bigger mistakes later.
  3. I’ve no idea what number 3 was. Please excuse my inattention.
  4. Cost to fix a defect increases over time, because of the need to fix all the collateral and downstream consequences of the error.
  5. There’s an important kernel of truth in the waterfall model. Essentially, there are three intellectual phases: discovery, invention, construction. They are sequential, but also overlapping.
  6. Software Estimates can be improved over time, by reducing its uncertainty as the project progresses.
  7. The most powerful form of reuse is full reuse – i.e. not just code and design, but all aspects of process.
  8. Risk management is important.
  9. Different kinds of software call for different kinds of software development (the toolbox approach). This was witty: he showed a series of pictures of different kinds of saw, then newsflash: software development is as difficult as sawing.
  10. The software engineering body of knowledge (SWEBOK)

Next up, the first New Ideas and Emerging Results session. This is a new track at this year’s ICSE, and the intent is to have a series of short talks, with a poster session at the end of the day. Although I’m surprised how hard it was to get a paper accepted: of 118 submissions, they selected only 21 for presentation (an 18% acceptance rate). The organisers also encouraged the presenters to use the Pecha Kucha format: 20 slides on an automated timer, with 20 seconds per slide. Just to make it more fun and more dynamic.

I’m disappointed to report that none of the speakers this morning took up this challenge, although Andrew Begel’s talk on social networking for programmers was very interesting (and similar to some of our ideas for summer projects this year). The fourth talk, by Abram Hindle, also didn’t use the Pecha Kucha format, but made up for it with a brilliant and beautiful set of slides that explain how to form interesting time series analysis visualizations of software projects by mining the change logs.

Buried in the middle of the session was an object lesson in misuse of empirical methods. I won’t name the guilty parties, but let me describe the flaw in their study design. Two teams were assigned a problem to analyze, with one team being given a systems architecture, and the other team wasn’t. To measure the effect of being given this architecture on the requirements analysis, the authors asked experts to rate each of several hundred requirements generated by each of the teams, and then used a statistical test to see whether the requirements from one team were different on this ranking compared to the other. Unsurprisingly, they discovered a statistically significant difference. Unfortunately, the analysis is completely invalid, because they made a classic unit of analysis error. The unit of analysis for the experimental design is the team, because it was teams that were assigned the different treatments. But the statistical test was applied to individual requirements. But there was no randomization of these requirements – all the requirements from a given team have to be taken as a single unit. The analysis that was performed in this study merely shows that the requirements came from two different teams, which we knew already. It shows nothing at all about the experimental hypothesis. I guess the peer review process has to let a few klunkers through.

Well, we reach the end of the session and nobody did the Pecha Kucha thing. Never mind – my talk is first up in the next NIER session this afternoon, and I will take the challenge. Should be hilarious. On the plus side, I was impressed with the quality of all the talks – they all managed to pack in key ideas, make them interesting, and stick to the 6 minute time slot.


  1. For completeness number 3 was: Iteration is essential.

    He talked about the difference between incremental development and iterative development. As well as the idea that people think they should iterate everything or iterate nothing. He recommended a balance and encouraged iteration.

    [Hmmm. Isn’t that my number 2? Oh, I see: he’s saying there’s a difference. Too subtle for me.

  2. @Alicia

    The difference was explained as follows:

    Incrementalism is making small, incremental improvements to the software when you clearly understand the final solution toward which you’re working.
    Iteration is going back and reworking something you already did because the requirements changed or your understanding of what the final product should be like changed.

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