Software Development Practice and Theory – A Chicken and Egg Story

which came first?

The state of software development as a profession looks a lot like the practice of medicine in the 19th century. We have our great ones in the tradition of Pasteur, Nightingale, Jenner, Lister, and Semmelweis. In spite of our advances, there’s a sense that the state of practice is still largely ad hoc.

A LinkedIn discussion started by Peter Murchland, “Does theory lead practice or practice lead theory?” illustrates the analogy (although the thrust of his question was directed towards enterprise architecture, the circumstances appear the same). To answer his question honestly, we have to say “both”. Established theory underlies many of our practices, and yet we often still find ourselves exploring uncharted territory at the edges. When the map runs out, we don’t have the option of stopping, but are required to press on, simultaneously creating new theory and testing it at the same time.

Theory, where it exists, guides practice. Practice reinforces, refines, or refutes theory. When practice faces problems outside the domain of established theory, then the seeds of new theory are planted.

Like medicine, software development (and enterprise architecture) lacks the ability to conduct full-scale controlled experiments to falsify it theories. For reasons of both practicality and ethics, more indirect means are the best available recourse. Just as medicine is ultimately “proven” in the practice, so too is software development. The fact that we are experimenting on our patients (customers) should give pause, particularly considering the “first, do no harm” credo is not a fundamental part of our training.

Much has been written regarding whether software development is science or art, craft or engineering. In “Enterprise Architecture as Science”, Richard Veryard makes the claim that enterprise architecture is a discipline, though not a scientific one because “many knowledge-claims within the EA world look more like religion or mediaeval scholastic philosophy than empirically verifiable science”. This same description can be applied equally to the current state of software development practice. It should be noted that this same description could also have been applied to the practice of medicine well into the 19th century.

Software development is a relatively young discipline (as is enterprise architecture, for that matter) with an immature, incomplete body of theory behind it. Building, testing, and refining that body should be a priority; absent that testing and refining it will have no claim to a scientific foundation. Until that foundation is much more solid, the emphasis must be on questioning, rather than trusting. Nullius in verba (“on the word of no one”), the motto of the Royal Society, should be our motto as well.


5 thoughts on “Software Development Practice and Theory – A Chicken and Egg Story

    • Absolutely (my first choice was “doubtless”, but that would have exceeded the recommended daily dose of irony).

      To further the analogy of the post, with all its maturity, medicine is still learning. This in spite of the fact that humans aren’t covered by Moore’s Law.


  1. Pingback: First Do No Harm – the Practice of Software Development | Form Follows Function

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