The Future of Software Engineering: V



Watts S. Humphrey

This library item is related to the following area(s) of work:

Process Improvement

This article was originally published in News at SEI on: March 1, 2002

This is the fifth in a series of columns on the future of software engineering. The previous four columns addressed some of the likely trends in application programming and systems programming. This column covers overall trends in the industry and probable scenarios of the future, focusing on the forces at work on software-intensive businesses and how businesses are likely to change in response to those forces.

In the previous four columns, I covered application programming, systems programming, and some of the likely future trends in these areas. In this column, I focus more broadly about the overall trends in our industry and what we will likely see in the future. In particular, I address the forces at work on software-intensive businesses and how businesses are likely to change in response to these forces. I then close with some comments on how software professionals can better prepare themselves for the challenges of the future.

As I asserted in the previous columns, there are some differences in the forces on the systems, applications, and middleware businesses, but there are also some commonalities. These common forces will affect all of us, regardless of what we do. First, to segment the discussion into manageable chunks, I start by reviewing the principal kinds of software businesses. Then, I identify the common forces on our industry. Next, I explore the implications of these forces on a software-intensive business. Finally, I explore how these forces will likely change the kind of work that software people do and what this is likely to mean for each of us.

While the positions that I take and the opinions I express are likely to be controversial, my intent is to stir up debate and, I hope, to shed some light on what I believe are important issues. Also, as is true in all of these columns, the opinions that I express are entirely my own.

The Kinds of Software Businesses

As I noted in the earlier columns in this series, we can expect the volume of application-development work to continue growing. This work will require people who know and understand various application domains and are also competent programmers. For such work, skill needs will span the full gamut from traditional business and accounting applications to embedded controllers that manage complex devices and processes. On the other hand, systems developers will principally be concerned with developing, maintaining, and enhancing the operating and support systems needed by the application-development community.

The operating-systems community will be split into three rather loosely defined groups: the software houses like Microsoft and Oracle; the systems businesses like Apple, Sun, and IBM; and the growing body of open-source programmers supporting systems like Unix and Linux. While it is too early to tell exactly how this business mix will evolve, the fuzzy middleware boundary between the operating-systems and application worlds is where a large body of people are now developing and marketing software. Their objective is to fill the cracks between the operating systems and application domains. As pointed out in Part IV of this series of columns, this middleware business faces unique challenges, and it is likely to be the principal competitive battleground for the next several years. This intersection was precisely the focus of Microsoft's antitrust lawsuit, and it will continue to be both the legal and competitive focus for some time to come.

We can also expect the interface between the systems and application worlds to fluctuate in response to evolving user needs. The development community that most quickly and effectively satisfies users' needs is likely to earn a larger share of the competitive pie. While various suppliers may use contractual or other means to force users to use their products exclusively, such strategies have only been temporarily effective in the past, so they are not likely to work over the long term. Of course, the long term could be very long indeed. However, if an offering is not truly in the users' best interests, sooner or later it will lose out to the better competitor. While the fight may take a long time and it may be won either in the marketplace or in the courts, the final result is inevitable.

The Forces on Software Businesses

There are many forces on software businesses, but the most significant ones I see today are the following:

  • The functional content and complexity of systems is increasing rapidly, as is the size of the software parts of these systems. As noted in the first column of this series, the size of the software used for any given function has been growing by roughly 10 times every 5 years. If software growth continues at this historical rate, this will mean an increase of 10,000 times in the next 20 years.
  • Increasingly, software plays a central role in controlling and managing systems. Software is not just getting bigger, it is a crucial part of the products and services in almost all industries.
  • Most computing systems will be interconnected. The Internet is merely the latest step in the long progression from stand-alone computing to pervasive computing networks.
  • We will see more internal and external threats to our systems. In the past, when our principal preoccupation was getting systems to work, we assumed a friendly and law-abiding environment. Now, in the interconnected world, these systems must work, be safe, and stay secure, even when exposed to attack by criminals and terrorists.

One could write pages on each of these topics but I will just state these forces as facts and deal with their implications. I next explore each of these four forces and what businesses should do about them.

Software Size and Complexity

The principal concern with size and complexity is the scalability of the development process. To handle the massive increases in system scale, organizations must employ processes that scale up. To appreciate the scalability problem, consider transportation. Vastly different technologies are involved in traveling at 3 miles an hour, 30 miles an hour, 300 miles an hour, or possibly even 3,000 miles per hour. You can't transition from one speed range to the next by merely trying harder. You need progressively more sophisticated vehicles that use progressively more advanced technologies.

Unfortunately, we have yet to learn this lesson in software. We attempt to use the same methods and practices for 1,000 lines of code (LOC) programs as for 1,000,000 LOC systems. This is a size increase of 1,000 times, and the commonly used test-based software development strategies simply do not scale up. Organizations that don't anticipate and prepare for scalability problems will someday find that they simply cannot get systems to work safely, reliably, and securely, no matter how much their people test and fix them. When systems hit this wall, you can either test until the available time or money runs out, or you can scrap the system and do it over again correctly. Unless you are a Microsoft or an IBM, however, you probably can't afford to start over. As systems get larger, we can expect most organizations that keep following their current test-based processes to face this problem. It is only a question of time until they do.

The Central Role of Software

The second force is software's now-central role in controlling and managing business-critical systems. This is because much or even all of the functions that customers find attractive about modern products and services is embodied in their software. And it is just these attractive functions that make products unique in the competitive marketplace.

Many executives view software as a problem that they don't understand and have no idea how to manage. They try to subcontract their software work or to find some other magic solution that will relieve them of the problems of managing software. This is almost always a mistake. When management subcontracts the technologies that make their products unique, they lose the ability to manage their future. I have just published a book that explains this problem and some of my experiences with it. It might give you some ideas on what to say to management about the importance of software in your organization [Humphrey 2002].


The third major force on the software industry concerns the growing interconnectedness of systems. Much like telephone systems, the value of a computing system is increasingly determined by the number of other systems to which it can connect. In the past, companies could focus on something IBM used to call "exclusivity." Now, however, systems that work only with hardware and software from one vendor are less and less attractive. In the old "exclusivity" days, IBM would sell, install, service, or support systems only if they were composed entirely of IBM products. As long as IBM was the dominant supplier of all important offering elements, this strategy worked quite well. But with the advent of the PC and the rapid introduction of many PC clones, IBM could no longer force its customers to use its products exclusively.

So, in the interconnected world, the keys to broad market acceptance are compatibility, interoperability, and interchangeability. Each of us is working on a small part of one enormous, world-wide, borderless computer-plex, and we are just now glimpsing its implications. While it is hard to predict what this trend will mean, it is clear that this new environment will force us out of the comfort and security of single-system thinking. We will need to think in interconnected ways and to remove any limitations that make it hard to interconnect and to interoperate our systems. We must recognize that the interconnected systems of the future will be used in ways that their developers could not imagine. It is precisely this ability of our systems to be used in new and innovative ways that will make them attractive to the users of the future.

Real-World Threats

The fourth force on the software industry is one we are just now facing. This new world is vastly different from the closed and comfortable one of the past. It is populated with many wonderful people but also with a few unpleasant, inconsiderate, and even threatening characters. With stand-alone systems, our exposure to the realities of a dangerous and unpleasant world were limited. But with the Internet, and with the growing interconnectedness of our systems, this is no longer the case.

This new environment will affect businesses in many ways. In particular, as we increasingly invoke the law to punish miscreants, those who have been damaged will also seek to recover damages from the organizations that built unsafe or insecure systems. Soon, secure and safe systems will be an economic necessity, and users will band together to seek damages from suppliers who don't provide such systems. There is currently a movement to modify contract law to protect software vendors from these problems. It is called UCITA, or the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act. While UCITA has been enacted into law in two states (Maryland and Virginia), there is growing opposition to it and further expansion is unlikely unless it is substantially changed.

What These Trends Will Mean to All of Us

Regardless of your place in this future, there are some strategies that you should consider, both to make your organization more competitive and to make your personal employment more secure and rewarding. The first and broadest consequence of the increasingly central role of software is that most professional workers will be involved in developing, supporting, marketing, or using software. As a consequence, the trends that affect the software world will also affect most of us. The principal challenge is to have the vision and imagination to capitalize on this future world and to help make it happen in an orderly and useful way.

The most obvious force on our industry is security. We will probably always have criminals and terrorists, so we must write our programs to operate in a threatening and unfriendly world. To appreciate what this means, consider that over 90% of the Internet's software security vulnerabilities result from common types of software defects. That means that the software security problem is, at least for now, a quality problem. If quality was not important before, it soon will be. This suggests that you should examine your personal quality practices and look for and adopt a set that are demonstrably effective. Then, follow these quality practices religiously. While you should consider all of the available candidates, my personal recommendation is the Personal Software Process (PSP) [Humphrey 1995].

From a project and organizational perspective, you should also look for processes that are demonstrably scaleable. When you find a scaleable process that fits your organization's needs, start a movement to adopt that process. While you might argue that one working-level developer could not possibly get a business to make such a change, every important change is started by one person, and that person is rarely a manager or an executive. Usually, it is someone like you who is close enough to the problem to appreciate its implications. Talk to the people around you, build a support network, and then start talking to the managers. You will be surprised at what you can accomplish.

Regarding a scaleable process, my favorite is the Team Software Process (TSP)  [Humphrey 2002]. However, before you pick your candidate process, look around and see what other methods are available. Also look for documented evidence of the effectiveness of these processes. Then, pick up the spear and get this method adopted by your organization. After all, in the last analysis, it is your job you are fighting for.

The Accelerating Pace of Change

To appreciate what these trends mean for each of us, remember that the world is now changing faster than it ever has before. The accelerating pace of change has been with us for so long that it seems almost trite to discuss it, but it does mean that the tools and methods we will use in the future will be vastly different from those that we use today.

In describing what this means to you and me, the best example I can think of is my personal experience. When I graduated from college in 1949, ENIAC, the first digital computer, had just recently been demonstrated. After a few years of graduate school and a brief university job, my first industrial position was designing a digital cryptographic system. Within two years, I was designing computers, and I have been working with computers ever since. Except for a class that I took in cost accounting, not one of my other college courses has been directly applicable to my subsequent work. This does not mean that my education was wasted but just that it was not enough. In this rapidly changing world, if you do not keep learning and remain open to new ideas and challenges, you will not play an important or even a very useful role in this challenging and exciting future.

Some Final Comments

The future of software engineering is quite unpredictable, but we can perceive some trends, particularly by considering the forces at work on our industry. In the last analysis, it is up to each of us to continue learning and to continue preparing ourselves for the challenges ahead. Then we will be prepared to take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves.


In writing papers and columns, I make a practice of asking associates to review early drafts. For this column, I particularly appreciate the helpful comments and suggestions of Don McAndrews, Julia Mullaney, Mark Paulk, and Marcia Pomeroy-Huff.

In closing, an invitation to readers

In these columns, I discuss software issues and the impact of quality and process on engineers and their organizations. However, I am most interested in addressing the issues that you feel are important. So, please drop me a note with your comments, questions, or suggestions. I will read your notes and consider them when planning future columns.

Thanks for your attention and please stay tuned in.

Watts S. Humphrey


[Humphrey 1995]
Watts S. Humphrey, A Discipline for Software Engineering, Reading, MA.: Addison Wesley Publishing, 1995.

[Humphrey 2002]
Watts S. Humphrey, Winning with Software: an Executive Strategy, Reading, MA.: Addison Wesley Publishing, 2002.

About the Author

Watts S. Humphrey founded the Software Process Program at the SEI. He is a fellow of the institute and is a research scientist on its staff. From 1959 to 1986, he was associated with IBM Corporation, where he was director of programming quality and process. His publications include many technical papers and six books. His most recent books are Managing the Software Process (1989), A Discipline for Software Engineering (1995), Managing Technical People (1996), and Introduction to the Personal Software Process (1997). He holds five U.S. patents. He is a member of the Association for Computing Machinery, a fellow of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and a past member of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Board of Examiners. He holds a BS in physics from the University of Chicago, an MS in physics from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and an MBA from the University of Chicago.

The views expressed in this article are the author's only and do not represent directly or imply any official position or view of the Software Engineering Institute or Carnegie Mellon University. This article is intended to stimulate further discussion about this topic.

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