This place has gone to seed, in large part, because I’ve been doing some actual work, trying to get a software release out — late, inadequate, but out — and as a consequence have followed Floyd McWilliams’s and Evan Kirchhoff’s theorizing about the future of software with more than academic interest. Evan starts here, Floyd replies, more Evan, more Floyd, and finally Evan again. The question at hand is when all of our jobs shall be outsourced to Softwaristan (India), where they produce high-quality source code for pennies a day, and what we software developers shall be doing for a living when that happens. As Evan puts it, “Floyd says ‘decades,’ I say ‘Thursday.'”
And I say, with due respect to both of these highly intelligent gentlemen, that neither one has the faintest idea what he’s talking about. They are speculating on the state of a science seventeen years in the future, and if they were any good at it they wouldn’t be laboring, like me, in the software mines, but in the far more lucrative business of fortune-telling. I — and I suspect I speak for Floyd and Evan here too — would happily swap W-2s, sight unseen, with Faith Popcorn or John Naisbitt, and they’re always wrong.
Floyd compares the current state of software development to chemistry circa 1700, which is generous; I would choose medicine circa Paracelsus, the Great Age of the Leeches. The two major theoretical innovations in modern software are design patterns and object orientation. Design patterns and object orientation are, depending on how you count, ten and thirty years old respectively, which indicates the blazing pace of innovation in the industry. Design patterns mean that certain problems recur over and over again, and instead of solving them the old-fashioned way, from scratch every time, you write down a recipe, to which you refer next time the problem crops up. Object orientation means that software modules, instead of just encapsulating behavior (“procedural programming”), now encapsulate data and behavior, just like real life! Now doesn’t that just bowl you right over?
Hardware, by contrast, improves so rapidly that there’s a law about it. It is a source of constant reproach to software, which has no laws, only rueful aphorisms: “Adding people to a late software project makes it later,” “right, fast, cheap: choose two,” and the like.
Evan claims, notwithstanding, that “a working American programmer in 2020 will be producing something equivalent to the output of between 10 and 1000 current programmers.” Could be. He points to analogies from other formerly infant industries, like telephones and automobiles. He also cites Paul Graham’s famous manifesto on succinctness as power, without noting that Graham’s language of choice is LISP. LISP is forty years old. If we haven’t got round to powerful languages in the last four decades are we really going to get round to them in the next two?
Floyd counters with an example of an object-relational library that increased his team’s productivity 25-50%, arguing that “as long as development tools are created in the same order of magnitude of effort as is spent using them, they will never cause a 100 or 1000-fold productivity improvement.” Could be. Certainly if, as we baseball geeks say, past performance is the best indicator of future performance, I wouldn’t hold my breath for orders-of-magnitude productivity improvements. On the other hand, bad as software is, enormous sums are poured into it, large segments of the economy depend on it, and the regulators do not even pretend to understand it. This all bodes well for 2020.
Me, I don’t know either, which is the point. Evan works on games, which are as good as software gets; this makes him chipper. Floyd works on enterprise software, which is disgusting; this makes him dolorous. I work on commercial business software, which is in-between; this makes me ambivalent. We all gaze at the future and see only the mote in our own eye.