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Bertrand Meyer talks with Bill Venners about the increasing importance of software quality, the commercial forces on quality, and the challenges of complexity.
Bertrand Meyer is a software pioneer whose activities have spanned both the academic and business worlds. He is currently the Chair of Software Engineering at ETH, the Swiss Institute of Technology. He is the author of numerous papers and many books, including the classic Object-Oriented Software Construction (Prentice Hall, 1994, 2000). In 1985, he founded Interactive Software Engineering, Inc., now called Eiffel Software, Inc., a company which offers Eiffel-based software tools, training, and consulting.
On September 28, 2003, Bill Venners conducted a phone interview with Bertrand Meyer. In this interview, which will be published in multiple installments on Artima.com, Meyer gives insights into many software-related topics, including quality, complexity, design by contract, and test-driven development. In this initial installment, Meyer discusses the increasing importance of software quality, the commercial forces on quality, and the challenges of complexity.
Bill Venners: In a 2001 interview with InformIT, you said, "The going has been so good that the software profession has been able to treat quality as one issue among many. Increasingly it will become the dominant issue." Why?
Bertrand Meyer: As the use of computers pervades more and more of what society does, the effects of non-quality software just becomes unacceptable. Software is becoming more ambitious, and we rely on it more and more. Problems that could be dismissed quite easily before are now coming to the forefront.
There is a very revealing quote by Alan Perlis in his preface to the MIT book on Scheme, The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programming, by Abelson and Sussman. Alan Perlis wrote:
I think that it's extraordinarily important that we in computer science keep fun in computing. When it started out, it was an awful lot of fun. Of course, the paying customer got shafted every now and then, and after a while we began to take their complaints seriously. We began to feel as if we really were responsible for the successful, error-free perfect use of these machines. I don't think we are. I think we're responsible for stretching them, setting them off in new directions, and keeping fun in the house.
That is typical of the kind of attitude that says "Sure, we can do whatever we like. If there's a problem we'll fix it." But that's simply not true anymore. People depend on software far too fundamentally to accept this kind of attitude. In a way we had it even easier during the dot-com boom years, between 1996 and 2000, but this is not 1998 anymore. The kind of free ride that some people were getting in past years simply doesn't exist anymore.
The Harvard Business Review published an article in May 2003, "IT Doesn't Matter" by Nicholas Carr, that stated that IT hasn't delivered on its promises. It is a quite telling sign of how society at large is expecting much more seriousness and is holding us to our promises much more than used to be the case. Even though it may still seem like we do have a free ride, in fact that era is coming to a close. People are watching much more carefully what we're doing and whether they're getting any return for their money. And the heart of that is quality.