Book Review: The Leprechauns of Software Engineering

Last Saturday, while waiting to be picked up by my friends Joh and Simon, I was reading the original paper on Conway’s Law. It is one of the reference points of microservices and I wondered exactly what it said. How had Conway proved his Law? Talking about this in the car, Joh and Simon said I should read Laurent Bossavit‘s Leprechauns of Software Engineering.

In this small book (which is a good thing – too many software books are much larger than they should be) Bossavit investigates the common-sense things that ‘everybody knows’ about software development and finds that many of them are based on hearsay and poor citation. The book is a sort of Bad Science for computer programmers, what Bossavit refers to as “epistemic hygiene”. Some of the myths examined are the idea of the 10x programmer, the idea that bugs cost more the later that they are found, and the problems of the waterfall method.

I love this sort of research. I spent an hour during my MA investigating the often-quoted story that Tristan Tzara caused a riot by reading random poetry. Since my essay was on William Burroughs and detournement, I barely managed to fit the research into a footnote, but the work was fascinating.

Bossavit wants to train software developers to be more sceptical, and outlines his method. Of course, the big flaw with this book like this is that it demands a lot from the reader. Without going back and reading the original sources for myself, I can’t be sure that Bossavit’s claims aren’t hearsay themselves. But, even without doing that work, there is value in the critical doubt that it stirs up.

For me, the most interesting part of the book was the discussion of waterfall, and the suggestion that the attacks on waterfall are based on a straw-man. While I love agile, and feel that it produces more humane projects, a well-run traditional project can be more effective than a poorly run agile one. Indeed, one of the problems with agile is that failed projects are often dismissed as ‘not being properly agile’. As Bossavit writes: “Software engineering is a social process, not a naturally occurring one- it therefore has the property that what we believe about software engineering has causal impacts on what is real about software engineering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *