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Software: The Next Generation
East of West and West of East: Engaging Other Academic Cultures
by James O. Coplien
September 28, 2004
Cope reflects on a recent trip to Serbia and Montenegro where he found a cornucopia of insight. He relates what academics might do to engage the greatly untapped intellectual resources that have become isolated by Western politics.


Last week (19 - 25 September) I had the pleasure of a soujorn to the University of Belgrade in Serbia and Montenegro. I had been invited to a short-term visiting professorship there by Vladan Devedži? and Siniša Vlaji?. Though I have visiting positions in the UK and in Brussels, it was my first time to that corner of Europe. I was the one who was supposed to teach them, but I was the one who learned as much as they did.

Their Program

The University of Belgrade's Faculty of Organizational Sciences (FOS) is an institution of thousands of students housed in a single building that was built as an extension of the old Queen Maria grade school. The building is alive—hi-fidelity pop music fills the hallways at a warm volume, and the corridors are brimming with students.

There are about 30 faculties at the University, ranging from the Faculty of Organizational Sciences (where Vladan is) to Industrial Engineering. I worked with the Faculty of Organizational Sciences which has "chairs," or divisions, of Information Systems, Management and Organization, Industrial Engineering, Quality Management, Statistics and Operations Research, and Social and Economic Studies. The school hosts thousands of students (remember, all of this is a building that would be an average-sized building on any other university campus). Students first started having access to computers three or four years ago. Up until that time, students learned their Cobol, FORTRAN, C, Pascal, Lisp, and Prolog (and eventually C++ starting in 1991, and C# and Java in 2001) by filling out coding forms. The culture has a pleasantly distinctive overtone of Delphi as well.

People there know that Smalltalk exists, but have never seen it. Generative programming is a foreign concept. They have heard of aspect-oriented programming and a few people know about it.

The Cultural and Economic Context

Parts of this world struggled under 500 years of Turkish Domination. Other parts of it were under years of domination by the Austro-Hungarian empire. It is a world which, in the pre-Communist era, enjoyed a culture of unification of church and state. Under Tito, the country was an anomaly—a harbor of relative peace across a diverse population of Croatians, Albanians, Bosnians, Montenegrans, and Serbs, bound in large part by a common Serbian identity. It is a world West of East and East of West: a crossroads, a bifurcation point in world stability. That means turmoil, and turmoil there has been. The Turkish invasion, the 1941 bombing by the Nazis of the Serbs in Belgrade, the 1944 bombing by the Americans of the Nazis in Belgrade, the wars of separation of Croatia and Slovenia, and then of Bosnia-Herzogovina, all took their toll.

But it was the UN embargo of the 1990s that took its greatest toll on the everyday citizen. The war and its politics brought economic devastation to the common person here. I found this on the web:

Zorica Mrševic, observed how her life changed from 1990 to 1994.
I have been a witness to how easily what has been socially constructed can be destroyed. Within a few months practically everything was changed. All the rules of the game are now different. Institutions for which we believed would exist forever don't exist anymore. All that I had invested myself in is worth nothing. We became miserable. In the previous time, we lived an easy life—not on a high standard, but somehow, everything was easy—to go on holiday, to get a flat from the institution where you worked, to buy new clothes, to eat whatever you wanted, to have fun, to visit restaurants, to travel abroad, to have free medical care. Now we spend practically all our earned money only for food. Our clothes and shoes, as well as our health and good moods, come from the previous time. The winter of 1993/1994 was the hardest in my life. We lived by eating only potatoes and beans and we had to spend our life savings to buy that. Our salaries were between 10 and 20 DM per month. (Feminist Resistance to War and Violence in Serbia, by Lepa Mladjenovic and Donna M. Hughes, 1999,

Five years ago I would not have been welcome there as an American. Americans had been their friends and inspiration through history. Americans had helped liberate Belgrade—reduced to dust by bombing in World War II—in the 1940s. They view 1960s America as the source of some of the great ideas of world progress. The U.S. bombings brought fear in their minds, but more importantly, they brought confusion: why are our friends bombing us? And every U.S. bomb shattered another foundation of their quality of life; each explosion shattered the economy; the embargo shut off all paths to reparation and rebirth. One Serb likened it to receiving the first beating from a father who had started the slide into a world of alcoholism and despair. But Serbs seem to forgive and forget, and the pre-war fascination with all things American seems to have returned to the hearts of Serbs.

We are not too far from Kosovo where Madeleine Albright supposedly stands to profit handsomely from a telecommunications infrastructure deal that ostensibly relates to post-war construction following the U.S. bombing of the area in the 1990s (so the Cheney-Iraq phenomenon is indeed a pattern with precedent). The downtown, once perhaps as great as Vienna or Budapest, is littered with the shells of collapsed, bombed-out buildings, the fallout of the NATO bombings. One building still cuddles an unexploded NATO bomb which is impossible to extricate, and it stands as a menacing memory of the days of horror.

However, the city is alive. The University building is alive in the sense that Alexander talks about the life of buildings. Its interior decor reflects an extremely tasteful facelifting in the past decade; its walls blossoming with impressionist and modern art works, its high ceilings reflecting the spacious comfort of its early twentieth century roots, and its grand windows illuminating its students minds with the light filtered by the trees in the park outside. There are young people everywhere, but Old People Everywhere as well. The night bars are alive—not with rowdiness, but with the camaraderie of a national family. It reminded me of the kind of ethnic brotherhood one finds in the Middle East.

And the people are full of hope. The economy is starting to grow, shops are opening again, and peace has taken a tenuous root in the region.

I certainly do not claim that all is rosy. Their academic world is certainly riddled with politics. Their tenure disease is stronger than at most U.S. institutions, and it is particularly sinister in the way it pushes students outside of the circle of relevance for some members of the tenured establishment (at least that’s how the students see it). Computer studies are still scattered across the FOS faculty, engineering school, and mathematics, rather than being unified in a single curriculum. The academic culture still bears many trappings of the Communist era: strong authoritarian structures, the Animal Farm syndrome (a perfect metaphor for tenure, in my opinion, and the double metaphor applies particularly well here), and the preference for cooperative egalitarianism over excellence. Yet the egalitarianism has value. These students receive an unbelievably broad education, each one receiving non-trivial exposure to art, history, religion, economics, music, science, social science, law, politics, history, math, biology, language (most students learn Russian as well as English or French—not as electives, but as required courses), history, and everything else in their curricula. I believe that is critically important to a deep understanding of design, and believe it is an area where U.S. curricula can improve.

In this article I will not resolve, nor even properly address, the moral issues behind the politics of the region. In most circumstances, academic camaraderie transcends politics. It is most certainly so in this instance: in my encounters, I found no academics whose heart was in the agendas of the war or in the repression of other people. These academics meet one stereotype of academics that we sometimes hold in contempt but which in this case helps shelve some concerns: as academics, they are a bit above day-to-day politics and the things of the world.

Hidden Greatness

What had most attracted me to the university in the first place was Siniša Vlaji?'s works. His Ph.D. thesis, completed in July 2003, presents an interesting formalization of patterns based on symmetry and symmetry breaking (Formalizacija jedinstvenog procesa razvoja softvera pomocu uzora, doctorska disertacija, Beograd, 2003). It is a topic near and dear to my heart, one I have been researching with Dr. Liping Zhao at the University of Manchester for the past decade.

It is not the first time I had seen a Ph.D. student attempt formalization of patterns. I had tired of seeing so many inept attempts at doing so in the past that it was difficult to get excited about a new one. Siniša had first approached me in March 2003 asking to correspond about the ideas. The correspondence was difficult, exacerbated in large part because of the language barrier. Siniša speaks halting English, but I know only three words in Serbian. Though I never came to understand the core issues of Siniša's work through our Email correspondence, the very fact that he was using symmetry groups greatly intrigued me and I wanted more fully to understand his thesis.

Our correspondence nonetheless paved the way to deeper interactions. Prof. Devedzi? invited me to write an article for the ComSIS journal, and that article will appear in October 2004 (“The Culture of Patterns”, Computer Science and Information Systems Journal 1(2), Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro, October 2004). And Siniša invited me for a two-week lecturing visit to the school. They could not afford to support my travel fees, but could afford to pay me a professor's salary—about 500 Euro per month. My desire to further understand Siniša's work, combined with the prospects of seeing a new place and experiencing a new culture, helped precipitate the decision. I was able to create an itinerary that included Belgrade in a European tour that I had planned, nestled (perhaps symbolically) between VikingPLoP and the Net.ObjectDays Conference in Erfurt, Germany.

A Kernel of Truth in the Formalism Myth

I have always held the stereotype that Eastern Europeans are well-skilled in the formal sciences, and especially in mathematics—especially relative to Americans. At North Central College where I last taught, I was probably the only one in the history of the institution ever to have taught any group theory, and the constraints of the curriculum limited me to about twenty minutes of lecture on the topic. Not only were the students ignorant of type theory, but I couldn't persuade the faculty that it was important: none of them had even heard of it. And the experience there wasn't unique. In Scienceworld, the United States has the highest indigenous incidence of third-world culture. While the U.S. academic experience has higher prospects of integrating the much-at-hand experiences of leading edge industry (though, apart from internship programs, that didn't seem to be happening at my last institution), the European academic experience seems a much more complete, well-grounded, and well-rounded journey. I have often claimed—provocatively—that Bachelors of Science graduate students at many U.S. institutions couldn't pass the first-year courses at most European institutions. I have always been confident of the truth of that statement as applied to Vrije Universiteit Brussel relative to North Central College. I feel it is also true of the University of Belgrade relative to North Central College, their disparate endowments to the contrary nothwithstanding. And I now feel that the claim isn't provocative at all, but a sad fact of American life.

In Belgrade, I found that just about every student had studied group theory (for you Yanks, group theory is pretty much necessary to the formal study of symmetry and of structure). But as I should have known, and contrary to my stereotype, they were not expert in it. It was still a struggle conveying moderately complex formal notions to the Belgrade audience, much as it would have been in a U.S. graduate school. The difference was that I was able to fully engage two or three key people in the Belgrade audience. (In retrospect, this would most likely have been due to the language difference.) Those who took an active interest in this focus were probably the brightest in the class (or maybe just those who had the best English language vocabulary). But in Belgrade, the brightest in the class have a broad grounding that can take them into many topics, and such grounding is largely missing in the United States.

So a combination of factors led me to believe there are diamonds in the rough here. The raw material of broad grounding, combined with deep foundations in formalism, are a breeding ground for greatness. Siniša had bootstrapped himself into some of the most advanced thinking about pattern theory that I have seen anywhere in the world.

About a Decade Behind

For all this academic depth, the computer science culture is about a decade behind the United States. The fads there are dominated by decade-old thinking: that object orientation will solve architecture and reuse problems, and that methodology is king. They seem to just be coming out of their CASE tool era and are just now discovering patterns.

I'll talk more about this in the following section.

Beyond Technical Excellence

One of the highlights of the trip came at dinner one night when Siniša and I were talking about his work. He remarked that behind the issues of symmetry and broken symmetry lie deeper issues of laws of nature and of greatness. He is interested in this approach to design because he feels it is only through this level of understanding that his country can return to prosperity. His words carried more than a glint of the pattern community vision of human dignity and quality of life.

The experience would be repeated the following night when a postgrad student, Valentina, told me, "I knew this material would be important and right when you started telling us that this was about the quality of human life and not just about technology."

That's why these folks are doing software; it's a future for their children and their people. Why are you doing software?

A Shrinking World—Not!

O.K., so I have led you to the point where you understand that Belgrade is quite a ways East of West. You might retort that the Internet has made this a shrinking world, particularly in Academia. Why should Serbians be about a decade behind the rest of the world?

I think the differences can be explained by three primary factors: economic isolation, geographic isolation, and cultural difference. The region had started to recover from Communist egalitarianism in the late 1980s, fueled in part by the reshaping of Soviet-dominated Communist culture. That same reshaping, which the U.S. often views as a victory for freedom, also led to increase in regional identity and nationalism. The folks in many parts of Europe—such as Belgium, where I took my Ph.D.—will tell you that nationalism isn't always a good thing. (My metric of nationalism is the ease with which a tourist can purchase a national flag; it is trivial in tourist spots in England and is almost impossible in Brussels. Then there are singularities such as Bavaria where you can't find a German flag to save your soul—but regional Bavarian flags are common. That's identity to the extreme. Another extreme is Christiania in Scandanavia, where it is very easy to buy the national flag for this "nation" of about 300 families. I did not succeed in procuring a flag in Serbia.)

Economic Isolation

I suspect that this is the upper bit in the separation between U.S. computer science and Serbian computer science. It comes down to web access.

It's probably true that most students at the University of Belgrade have at least occasional access to the web. All students have at least an indirect connection to the web through their fellow students, who are eager to pass on papers and ideas they find in their web searches. I found that the University culture is a paper-intensive culture; paper is of high quality; there are good facilities for quickly creating spiral-bound books; there is a lot of paper around. There is a culture of copying any work of value and making it broadly available. The word "copyright" is a joke, in a literal sense: they interpret it as "take the right to copy."

However, this indirect access doesn't afford the average student the time and resources to truly surf the web and to make connections. Big pictures emerge slowly if at all.

Worse yet, the reverse path is almost non-existant. Servers are scarce as hens' teeth, and the prospects for publishing one's works on the web are almost nil. The chances that a reader in "the West" would see a work from a Serbian author are extremely small. That owes to the scarcity of computing resources, which in turn owes directly to the UN embargo, the NATO bombs, and the overall economic isolation of the region.

That means that the chances that I would ever run across Siniša's work are extremely small. That means that it's extremely unlikely that I would send him comments on his work. It is also unlikely that he would send me comments on my work, as he (were he a typical Serb) would have much less access to a computer and to the Internet than a web surfer in the West. Luckily, Siniša had enough web surfing access to be able first to track down my works, and second to be able to have Email access to participate in dialogue.

Geographic Isolation

Never underestimate the power of geography on interaction. In our studies of software organizations, geographic colocation (or lack thereof) is the dominant factor in the social cohesion of an organization (Organizational Patterns of Software Development, by Jim Coplien and Neil Harrison, Prentice-Hall, ©2005). (Folks in Belgrade, please note the © ;-).)

Serbia is a long way away from me in the United States. But it is also a long way from Western Europe. Airplane flights there require creative connections. Train technology is old, and trains are slow (it is twelve hours by train from Vienna, which would be substantially shorter on an ICE on suitable rails.)

Even for someone accustomed to travel, it is difficult. United Airlines advised me against flying there. The U.S. State department warns its citizens about visiting there. Yet I never felt unsafe or threatened or even out of place or unwelcome. The locals chalk up the difference to the myths created by CNN.

This distancing creates a kind of locality that feeds on itself. Isolated from the rest of Europe and the West, the culture depends largely on its own customs and language. Siniša's Ph.D thesis is written in Serbian.

Cultural Difference

St. Exupery's Le Petit Prince shaped me strongly in my younger days. One of its stories tells of the discovery of the asteroid B612 by a Turkish astronomer, who reported the discovery at a conference of astronomers. He gave his address dressed in Turkish fez and garb. Real Scientists didn't find him credible. Giving the same address later, robed in an official business suit, he was warmly and enthusiastically received for the delivery of the same address.

We (for any we) are xenophobic: we feel comfortable with what we feel comfortable with. We are suspicious of ideas that come from outside our cultural context. It's hard to measure. Maybe there's some of that going on here. Serbia is, after all, not that far from Turkey, as things go, and was under Turkish rule for half a millenium.

Fruits of Isolation

There is good news and there is bad news here. We usually think of the bad news in terms of its repercussions for the Serbs: they are out of the loop, at arm's length, and that keeps them out of the world market and limits prosperity. But it is also our loss. Isolationism is symmetric with purity, and purity guards against contamination. I suspect that computer science is riddled with groupthink and with a mindlock that adheres to outdated or dysfunctional values. That requires "thinking out of the box," and I'm skeptical of just how much those goofy management exercises can do to transport us to another world of thinking. That world already exists in other places on our planet. I have found such thinking in the past at many institutions in Australia, whose geographic isolation has caused ideas to evolve along curiously different lines of development. (Continuing the metaphor, evolutionary processes lead to a balance of ideas that are profound and others that are just plain goofy.) And now, I have found another part of that different world in Serbia: a world much more highly differentiated from the Western academic world than Oz Down Under. It is a world far East of West, a world worth visiting—if not in the body, then in the mind.

The area around Belgrade is known for its fascination with method. Perhaps that fascination owes to the scarcity of computers; it's a way to do interesting work without having to program. I am generally skeptical of methodologists who avoid programming, but many of them use the avoidance of programming as a way also to avoid thinking and any ties to theoretical foundations. That's where the Serbs are different. They have the formal grounding.

This leads to a culture where much of the methodology work strikes me as "strange." For now, I'm chalking that up to my inability to make the cultural shift. Oh, yes, there is the usual smattering of ill-grounded hopes for automation and the triumph of technology with little concern for the central issues of human dignity and quality of life. That may owe in part to their socialist roots, and in part to the same thinking that dominated software as it transitioned into object-oriented thinking in the West just prior to the beginning of the preceding decade. But if you brush away that dust, there are rough gems waiting to be refined. Refinement requires friction; as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Friction comes from interaction. Cultural interaction is the engine of progress, and it's difficult to find another culture with which to have the interaction of friction if you are in a poor, beleaguered society plagued by a UN embargo.

But not all the method work is "strange." One remarkable student of the engineering school in Belgrade would go on to method work, and now is one of the lead people in IBM's Rose product and is probably the key person behind UML 2.0. He's a friend of mine and his name is Bran Selic. He has arguably done as much to bring reasonable and useful ideas of method to the "Western" world of software development as have Ed Yourdon, Larry Constantine, and Grady Booch. His work certainly has ties back to this cauldron of method, and one wonders how much more of such wisdom lies latent there.

The design and pattern work, in my opinion, are in the same league. There is great thinking here. The combination of isolation and deep intellectual tradition have combined to give us something we desperately need. It is frustrating that such ideas have difficulty making it out of the box.

What Academics Can Do

I'd like to suggest things we can do in our own academic cultures to engage the "third world" (how I hate to use that term). This isn't a call for charity. This is first a call to community. It is not a call for academic solidarity, either, but a call to community for programmers everywhere. It's important. Such engagement builds diversity that is crucial to progress. In my view, Eastern thinking—and, for that matter, the Southern thinking of the Aussies and Northern thinking of the Nordic folks—are crucial ingredients in the mixing pot of intellectual human endeavor. And there are practical things that you can do back home.

Some of these things requires means and resources: see if they are available through your institution. But some of these things are free. They require only your time. I know time is scarce, but trust me: the investment is worth it, even if it is even for your own personal edification.


I hope that I planted some seeds of new ideas in Belgrade that will grow quickly in the rich soil of their diverse cultural background, deeply watered by their formal foundations. Patterns are much more about Eastern thinking than about Western reductionism, and that gives me hope that great work could happen here. Siniša already has a good start.

I believe the same thing for the Japanese, for the same reason. My fantasy is that those cultures can work together to sort out the ideas that can bring a foundation for new paradigms of design. I don't mean "paradigm of design" here in the software sense, but in the true Kuhnian sense of a worldmodel, a Weltanschauung.

I need to run: I'm off to work on a paper for submission to the Journal of Information and Organizational Sciences. It's published in Croatia. Keep your eye out for it.

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About the Blogger

Jim Coplien is a Senior Agile Coach and System Architect at Nordija A/S, doing international consulting in organization structure, software patterns, system architecture, as well as software development in electronic design automation, telecom, and finance. In this 'blog, he reflects on his academic career pursuant to his visiting professorship at University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, his appointment as the 2003-2004 Vloebergh Chair at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, two years as an Associate Professor at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, and extensive work developing some of the first C++ and OOD training materials. He is well-known for his foundational work on object-oriented programming and on patterns, and his current research explores the formal foundations of the theory of design, foundations of aesthetics and beauty, and group theoretic models of design structure. He most recent book "Organizational Patterns of Agile Software Development", co-authored with Neil Harrison, culminates a decade of research. His book "Advanced C++ Programming Styles and Idioms" defined design and programming techniques for a generation of C++ programmers, and his book "Multi-Paradigm Design for C++" presents a vision for the evolution of current OO design techniques into a more general and better grounded theory of software construction.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2004 James O. Coplien. All rights reserved.

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