The Leprechauns of Software Engineering

How folklore turns into fact and what to do about it

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About the Book

The software profession has a problem, widely recognized but which nobody seems willing to do anything about. You can think of this problem as a variant of the well known "telephone game", where some trivial rumor is repeated from one person to the next until it has become distorted beyond recognition and blown up out of all proportion.

Unfortunately, the objects of this telephone game are generally considered cornerstone truths of the discipline, to the point that their acceptance now seems to hinder further progress.

In this short ebook, we will take a look at some of those "ground truths": the claimed 10x variation in productivity between developers; the "software crisis"; the cost-of-change curve; the "cone of uncertainty"; and more. We'll hone our scholarship skills by looking up the original source for these ideas and taking a deep dive in the history of their development. We'll assess the real weight of the evidence behind these ideas.

And we'll confront the scary prospect of moving the state of the art forward in a discipline that has had the ground kicked from under it.

This book is a work in progress. Visit the blog. Download the sample. Read the Preface - know just what you're getting.

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Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Chapter 1: Software Engineering’s telephone game
    • How we got there
    • Surface plausibility
    • Leprechaun spotting
    • What you can do
  • Chapter 2: The Cone of Uncertainty
    • How to feel foolish in front of a class
    • Making sense of the picture
    • Getting to the facts
    • The telephone game in action
    • Controversy
    • What to make of all this?
  • Chapter 3: Why you should care about empirical results
    • The perils of empirical research
    • Discipline envy
    • Science and reality
    • Where to go from here
  • Chapter 4: The messy workings of scientific discourse
    • Modalities
    • Citation as modality
    • The construction of facts
  • Chapter 5: The hunt for the 10x files
    • Why is this important? Isn’t it obvious?
    • The impressive list of references
    • The original study and the 10x claim
    • Harshly criticized
    • The 10x files
    • Good study, bad study
    • The wild goose chase
  • Chapter 6: The variable programmer
    • Getting just the results you want
    • Within-subject variability
    • Rocket science: the NASA data
    • Needle in a haystack
    • The COCOMO haystacks
    • Environmental effects
    • Summing up
  • Interlude: How To Lie
  • Chapter 7: Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Waterfall?
    • The standard story
    • Alternate endings
    • Just the facts
    • No paper is an island
    • Late bloomer
    • Birth of a myth
  • Chapter 8: Software’s perpetual crisis
  • Chapter 9: A Leprechaun hunting tutorial
  • Chapter 10: The cost of defects: an illustrated history
    • Origins
    • First amendments
    • Where’s the data?
    • Metamorphoses
    • Changing the topic altogether
    • Reading curves
    • Theory-laden diagrams
    • Boehm’s assent
  • Chapter 11: Rocket science and Flaubert math
    • Flaubert and the math of ROI
    • NASA IV&V’s math
    • How old is the captain?
    • Eighy-three! For some value of eighty-three.
  • Chapter 12: For some value of 56
    • Where bugs come from
    • Sample size of one
    • Poor requirements
    • A software triumph
  • Chapter 13: The cost of bad research
    • Uncritical thinking
    • Extraordinarily suspect claims
    • Terms of inquiry
    • Research standards
  • Chapter 14: Raising the bar
    • Two modest proposals for publications on software development
    • Will you take the pledge?
  • Chapter 15: A new model of inquiry
    • The Ouroboros effect: circular causation
    • From Requirements To Negotiation
    • The cliffhanger
  • Appendix A: bibliographical analysis of the 10x files
    • Questions of indirection
    • Summary results
    • The quest for primary sources
    • A better list: primary sources with empirical evidence
  • Appendix B: bibliographical analysis for the “defect-cost-increase curve”
    • The older references
    • The newer references
  • Appendix C - Conceptions and invention of waterfall
    • Invention of waterfall
    • Conceptions of waterfall (articles between 1970 and 1989)

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