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Risks of Undisciplined Development

By David L. Parnas

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 53 No. 10, Pages 25-27

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An illustration of the problems caused by a lack of discipline in software development and our failure to apply what is known in the field.

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CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the March 2011 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2011/3/105325).
--CACM Administrator

As a programmer for the past 40 years, I wholeheartedly support David L. Parnas's Viewpoint "Risks of Undisciplined Development" (Oct. 2010) concerning the lack of discipline in programming projects. We could be sitting on a time bomb and should take immediate action to prevent potential catastrophic consequences of the carelessness of software professionals. I agree with Parnas that undisciplined software development must be curbed.

I began with structured programming and moved on to objects and now to Web programming and find that software is a mess today. When I travel on a plane, I hope its embedded software does not execute some untested loop in some exotic function never previously recognized or documented. When I conduct an online banking transaction, I likewise hope nothing goes wrong.

See the Web site "Software Horror Stories" (http://www.cs.tau.ac.il/~nachumd/horror.html) showing why the facts can no longer be ignored. Moreover, certification standards like CMMI do not work. I have been part of CMMI-certification drives and find that real software-development processes have no relation to what is ultimately certified. Software development in real life starts with ambiguous specifications. When a project is initiated and otherwise unrelated employees assembled into a team, the project manager creates a process template and fills it with virtual data for the quality-assurance review. But the actual development is an uncontrolled process, where programs are assembled from random collections of code available online, often taken verbatim from earlier projects.

Most software winds up with an unmanageable set of bugs, a scenario repeated in almost 80% of the projects I've seen. In them, software for dropped projects might be revived, fixed by a new generation of coders, and deployed in new computer systems and business applications ultimately delivered to everyday users.

Software developers must ensure their code puts no lives at risk and enforce a licensing program for all software developers. Proof of professional discipline and competency must be provided before they are allowed to write, modify, or patch any software to be used by the public.

As suggested by Parnas,(1)(2) software should be viewed as a professional engineering discipline. Science is limited to creating and disseminating knowledge. When a task involves creating products for others, it becomes an engineering discipline and must be controlled, as it is in every other engineering profession. Therefore, software-coding standards should be included in penal codes and country laws, as in the ones that guide other engineering, as well as medical, professions. Moreover, software developers should be required to undergo periodic relicensing, perhaps every five or 10 years.

Basudeb Gupta
Kolkata, India


(1) Parnas, D.L. Licensing software engineers in Canada. Commun. ACM 45, 11 (Nov. 2002), 9698.

(2) Parnas, D.L. Software engineering: An unconsummated marriage. Commun. ACM 40, 9 (Sept. 1997), 128.

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