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Engineering: Pipes, Wires, … and Software

18 June 2012

Software engineering will always be an uncomfortable fit with the traditional engineering disciplines. One of the key issues is the fact that all the other engineering disciplines create physical artifacts but software engineering does not. This difference means that the basis in physics and chemistry shared by all the other engineering disciplines is simply not relevant to software engineering.

This week I had a graphic reminder of this gap when attending the annual conference for the American Society for Engineering Education, where I presented several papers related to software engineering education. The exhibit hall was filled with vendors selling engineering education products, many of which involved equipment or scale models of large artifacts like bridges. Reflective of the relatively minor presence of software engineering at the conference, there were no vendors in the large exhibit hall who were positioned to support software engineering education.

This minor representation for software engineering reflects a national problem. Federal projections indicate that we should be graduating about five to seven times the number of computing majors that we are now graduating. Software engineering majors should be a key part of that group. “Software engineer” has even topped the list repeatedly in recent years as the best career opportunity available. Any yet the number of undergraduate programs in software engineering nationally is in the low 30′s and most of those programs have small numbers of students.Engineering and Software

The lack of software engineering majors is a looming national economic problem. It’s a problem for the other engineering disciplines too. While browsing the exhibit hall at ASEE, I couldn’t help but note the extensive integration of software with all those displays of engineering equipment. With almost every exhibit, like the one shown to the right, there was a laptop or tablet that was used to provide controls or models or processing. In a profession where concern for attributes like reliability and performance are typical, the software engineer in me was inclined to guess that all that software was likely to be a weak link in many of these products. Until we start to take the challenges of software engineering more seriously, software will remain a weak link in engineering artifacts and beyond.

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