Software Engineering - Chapter 1. What Is Software Engineering?

Posted on By Guanzhou Song

Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone.

We see three critical differences between programming and software engineering: time, scale, and the trade-offs at play.

On a software engineering project, engineers need to be more concerned with the passage of time and the eventual need for change. In a software engineering organization, we need to be more concerned about scale and efficiency, both for the software we produce as well as for the organization that is producing it. Finally, as software engineers, we are asked to make more complex decisions with higher-stakes outcomes, often based on imprecise estimates of time and growth.

Over a span of a decade or more, most program dependencies, whether implicit or explicit, will likely change. This recognition is at the root of our distinction between software engineering and programming.

This distinction is at the core of what we call sustainability for software. Your project is sustainable if, for the expected life span of your software, you are capable of reacting to whatever valuable change comes along, for either technical or business reasons.

Importantly, we are looking only for capability— you might choose not to perform a given upgrade, either for lack of value or other priorities.2 When you are fundamentally incapable of reacting to a change in underlying technology or product direction, you’re placing a high-risk bet on the hope that such a change never becomes critical. For short-term projects, that might be a safe bet. Over multiple decades, it probably isn’t.

An early attempt to define software engineering produced a good definition for this viewpoint: “The multiperson development of multiversion programs.”

Hyrum’s Law

If you are maintaining a project that is used by other engineers, the most important lesson about “it works” versus “it is maintainable” is what we’ve come to call Hyrum’s Law:

With a sufficient number of users of an API, it does not matter what you promise in the contract: all observable behaviors of your system will be depended on by somebody.

Hyrum’s Law represents the practical knowledge that—even with the best of intentions, the best engineers, and solid practices for code review—we cannot assume perfect adherence to published contracts or best practices.

Trade-offs and Costs

in software engineering, as in life, good choices lead to good outcomes. However, the ramifications of this observation are easily overlooked.

Inputs to Decision Making

All of the quantities involved are measurable or can at least be estimated. This usually means that we’re evaluating trade-offs between CPU and network, or dollars and RAM, or considering whether to spend two weeks of engineer-time in order to save N CPUs across our datacenters.

Some of the quantities are subtle, or we don’t know how to measure them. Sometimes this manifests as “We don’t know how much engineer-time this will take.” Sometimes it is even more nebulous: how do you measure the engineering cost of a poorly designed API? Or the societal impact of a product choice?

Revisiting Decisions, Making Mistakes

A decision will be made at some point, based on the available data—hopefully based on good data and only a few assumptions, but implicitly based on currently available data. As new data comes in, contexts change, or assumptions are dispelled, it might become clear that a decision was in error or that it made sense at the time but no longer does.

This is particularly critical for a long-lived organization: time doesn’t only trigger changes in technical dependencies and software systems, but in data used to drive decisions.

We believe strongly in data informing decisions, but we recognize that the data will change over time, and new data may present itself.

it’s often critical to have the ability to change directions after an initial decision is made.

Contrary to some people’s instincts, leaders who admit mistakes are more respected, not less.

Be evidence driven, but also realize that things that can’t be measured may still have value. If you’re a leader, that’s what you’ve been asked to do: exercise judgement, assert that things are important.

Programming is the immediate act of producing code. Software engineering is the set of policies, practices, and tools that are necessary to make that code useful for as long as it needs to be used and allowing collaboration across a team.


how do you maintain your code for as long as it needs to keep working?

  • “Software engineering” differs from “programming” in dimensionality: 1 programming is about producing code. Software engineering extends that to include the maintenance of that code for its useful life span.

  • There is a factor of at least 100,000 times between the life spans of short-lived code and long-lived code. It is silly to assume that the same best practices apply universally on both ends of that spectrum.

  • Software is sustainable when, for the expected life span of the code, we are capable of responding to changes in dependencies, technology, or product requirements. We may choose to not change things, but we need to be capable.

  • Hyrum’s Law: with a sufficient number of users of an API, it does not matter what you promise in the contract: all observable behaviors of your system will be depended on by somebody.

  • Every task your organization has to do repeatedly should be scalable (linear or better) in terms of human input. Policies are a wonderful tool for making process scalable.

  • Process inefficiencies and other software-development tasks tend to scale up slowly. Be careful about boiled-frog problems.

  • Expertise pays off particularly well when combined with economies of scale.

  • “Because I said so” is a terrible reason to do things.

  • Being data driven is a good start, but in reality, most decisions are based on a mix of data, assumption, precedent, and argument. It’s best when objective data makes up the majority of those inputs, but it can rarely be all of them.

  • Being data driven over time implies the need to change directions when the data changes (or when assumptions are dispelled). Mistakes or revised plans are inevitable.