Limits of Software: People, Projects, and Perspectives

Overview

"The author knows whereof he speaks. His material is sound, up-to-date, and appropriate. Robert N. Britcher has inside knowledge on one of the most dramatic software stories of our time."
-Robert L. Glass
President, Computing Trends


What really goes on inside the world of software development? How do straightforward projects with well-defined goals mutate into large-scale ...
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Overview

"The author knows whereof he speaks. His material is sound, up-to-date, and appropriate. Robert N. Britcher has inside knowledge on one of the most dramatic software stories of our time."
-Robert L. Glass
President, Computing Trends


What really goes on inside the world of software development? How do straightforward projects with well-defined goals mutate into large-scale disasters? How do personalities, ambitions, work environments, and time and cost limitations impact the creation of software?

In a book that is both personal and technical, Robert N. Britcher brings to life the culture and infrastructure of software development. Combining history, characters, dialogue, memoirs, and technical information, he describes software development's evolution from the early systems of the 1960s and 1970s to today's high expectations for technical achievement, timeliness, and profit.

Using the FAA's Advanced Automation System-one of the largest and most spectacular computing failures in the history of the field-as a backdrop, the author draws on his first-hand experiences to illuminate the reasons why software projects succeed or fail. He examines theories of programming, the process of design, and the methods by which code is written and tested. In addition, Britcher discusses the human element, decrying the "impossible profession" and describing the daily experiences of "life on the project."

Looking at the current software development environment, The Limits of Software explores how technology changes methods and how today's market demands affect software development. The book also examines the many forces behind the current push for the development of the "one great system."

In this extraordinary book, Britcher offers a long-standing insider's perspective on the past and present of the computer industry, complete with its many foibles and achievements. He looks to the future with both optimism and trepidation, hoping that the industry can accomplish real gains while reaching for worthwhile goals.
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Editorial Reviews

Booknews
Britcher is retired from IBM but teaches classes on software and management at Johns Hopkins. Describing the FAA's Advanced Automation System as one of the largest and most spectacular computing failures in history, he uses it as an example of what really goes on, and goes wrong, inside in the deep bowels of software development. He explores both personal and technical aspects, including theories of programming, the process of design, methods for writing and testing code, and the daily experience of life on the project. He has not indexed his account. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780201433234
  • Publisher: Addison-Wesley
  • Publication date: 6/23/1999
  • Pages: 214
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.39 (d)

Read an Excerpt

I can't believe how hard it has been for me to write a foreword for this book. Normally, I do my homework on the subject I'm to write about; then I sit down at my word processor, and the words seem to flow from my mind to my fingertips. But not this time.

This is no ordinary book. And it deserves an extraordinary foreword. That's the problem, I believe. It's hard to commit yourself to doing something extraordinary, and then just sit down and have it happen.

Why is this not an ordinary book? Because Bob Britcher is not an ordinary writer. This book is not like anything else you've ever read on the subject of computing. It's part storytelling, part history, part art, part science, part philosophy, part logic--all entwined around the subject of computing and software. To be honest, I don't know whether or not you'll like this book. But I hope you'll be curious enough to give it a try. In the end, you may come to love Britcher's writing, as I do. He may well be the only Renaissance man writing in the computing field.

What's in the book? A collection of anecdotes. A collection of facts and opinions. Some thoughts on the origins of the computing field. Some thoughts on where the computing field is going now. Personal insights on computing's foibles and computing's achievements. Personal insights on one of the largest and most spectacular computing failures in the history of the field.

Britcher was a programmer on the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Advanced Automation System (AAS), which he calls "the greatest debacle in the history of organized work." He describes in fascinating insider detail the many-faceted failures of that doomed project, coming to the conclusion that the project "brought out the worst in all of us, the thousands who worked on it . . . its atmosphere was slavish and mindless . . . we learned nothing from it."

So this is a book about a particular failed project, right? Well, no. There's far more to it than that. Take Britcher's semi-imaginary playmates, Harry and Clinton, foils through whom Britcher speaks to us readers with sometimes outrageous and sometimes poignant belief sets that, one suspects, are not quite his own or that he is not quite ready to claim. And yet, as time passes and we keep turning the pages of the book, Harry especially becomes a dominant character, and in the final chapter he becomes a tragic figure; we readers find ourselves saddened by a character who we knew was not quite real but who we sense symbolizes what Britcher may feel is the encroaching cloud of darkness over this new age of technology.

Oh, and those wonderful stories of Britcher's--the computer that melted one night, known ever after as the "crispy critter"; the program listing that disappeared into a garbage dumpster and had to be retrieved. Or the wonderful images--Britcher being shown an early windowing system, where in one window "the protagonist [in a movie being shown there] was sucking the blood out of some innocent, while [in another window] I contemplated my next sales call."

In the final analysis, I think I'll remember best the times Britcher shares with us about building software. "Developing software correctly is difficult. Developing vaccines and medicines without side effects is difficult. . . . Neither enterprise will benefit from shortcuts."

It's time to bring this foreword to a close. It wasn't easy to write. I'm not sure it does justice to Britcher's book. What I hope I've accomplished here is to raise your curiosity to an extremely high level, high enough to cause you to proceed eagerly into the rest of the book. I think you'll be glad you did.

—Robert L. Glass
Fall 1998
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Table of Contents

Foreword
Prologue
Dramatis Personae
Acknowledgments

Part I

Chapter 1 Early Systems
Chapter 2 Theories of Programming
Chapter 3 The Human Element
Chapter 4 Designing
Chapter 5 Code: The Stuff of Programs
Chapter 6 Testing Computer Systems
Chapter 7 The Impossible Profession
Chapter 8 Life on the Project

Part II

Chapter 9 Supervision through Language
Chapter 10 How Technology Changes Methods
Chapter 11 Size and Intellectual Gravity
Chapter 12 The Marketing of Science
Chapter 13 Errors
Chapter 14 The One Great System
Chapter 15 The Government of Programming
Chapter 16 The System to End All
Chapter 17 The End-All of Programming

Afterword
Reading List
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