On knowing what you’re doing

I’d like to share this quote from E.W.Dijkstra:

When the design of the THE Multiprogramming System neared its completion the University’s EL X8 was getting installed, but it had not been paid yet, and we hardly had access to it because the manufacturer had to put it to the disposal of an American software house that was supposed to write a COBOL implementation for the EL X8. They were program testing all the time, and we let it be known that if occasionally we could have the virgin machine for a few minutes, we would appreciate it. They were nice guys, and a few times per week we would get an opportunity for our next test run. We would enter the machine room with a small roll of punched paper tape, and a few minutes later we would leave the machine room with the output we wanted. I remember it vividly because when they realized what we were achieving, our minimal usage of the machine became more and more frustrating for them. I don’t think their COBOL implementation was ever completed.
EWD1303, My recollections of operating systems design

I can picture Dijkstra and his collegues working with paper and blackboards and thinking hard about how they were writing their software. They came into the room and their software just worked. And I can picture the Cobol crew in a furious vicious circle of code-and-fix; their growing frustration and despair. That was about 1960: no books on software design existed back then. For that matter, no books on compiler writing existed either.

Could the Cobol crew have done better? Absolutely. In 1954, the FORTRAN team led by John Backus produced a compiler that reportedly wrote code almost as good as hand-written. How could the poor Cobol crew have done something as good or at least good enough?

My answer: by designing their software. By breaking the thing into parts (modules) and developing each one separately. By using analogies from other engineering disciplines; by using metaphors. I know this is all obvious to us in 2011 as we all know about module decomposition and the use of metaphors and coupling and cohesion. But is it really obvious? Really?

What I see is that modern-day software teams today can *still* be divided in two kinds: the Dijkstra-crew kind and the Cobol-crew kind. Those who are in control and produce reasonably good software within reasonable resources and whose code is reasonably clean; and those who toil away late hours and produce late and buggy software, with no design, or perhaps with an ineffective, we-dont-really-believe-in-it design and crappy code.

Which do you want to be? What will you do to become it?

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