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Making Software by Greg Wilson, Andy Oram

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What Makes Software Engineering Uniquely Hard to Research

Software engineering has several characteristics that that distinguish it from other disciplines. Software is developed in the creative, intellectual sense, rather than being produced in the manufacturing sense. Software processes are development processes, not production processes. In other words, they are not replicated over and over again. This unique aspect of the discipline is probably the most important one, and greatly affects how we learn. We always need to be on the lookout for the effect of context variables. Because software engineering is a human-based discipline, there will always be variation in study results and we will never be able to control or even identify all the context variables. The discipline creates a need for continual experimentation, as we explore how to modify and tailor processes for people.

The variation in context springs from more than just the people who create the software; each piece of software itself is different, as are software development environments. One consequence of this is that process is a variable, goals are variables, etc. That is, we need to select the right processes for the right goals for the environment we are analyzing. So, before we decide how to study a technique, we need to know something about the environment and the characteristics of what we are about to build.

A second distinguishing characteristic of the software engineering discipline is software’s intangibility ...

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