First Do No Harm – the Practice of Software Development

Medieval Anatomy Illustration

Analogies are never perfect, but reading Erik Dietrich’s “Do Programmers Practice Computer Science?” brought one to mind. Software development has much in common with the practice of medicine. Software development, like medicine, involves the application of knowledge. Also like medicine, this application is made complex by considerations of context. Yet another commonality is that in both disciplines, there are (or, at least, should be, limits regarding experimentation).

Erik’s post used the following comparison of developers to electricians:

Let’s consider three actors in the realm of physics, as a science.

  1. A physicist, who runs electricity through things to see if they explode.
  2. An electrical engineer, who takes the knowledge of what explodes from the physicist and designs circuitry for houses.
  3. An electrician, who builds houses using the circuits designed by the electrical engineer.

I list these out to illustrate that there are layers of abstraction on top of actual science. Is an electrician a scientist, and does the electrician use science? Well, no, not really. His work isn’t advancing the cause of physics, even if he is indirectly using its principles.

Let’s do a quick exercise that might be a bit sobering when we think of “computer science.” We’ll consider another three actors.

  1. Discrete mathematician, looking to win herself a Fields medal for a polynomial time factoring algorithm.
  2. R&D programmer, taking the best factoring algorithms and turning them into RSA libraries.
  3. Line of business programmer, securing company’s Sharepoint against script kiddies uploading porn.

Programming is knowledge work and non-repetitive, so the comparison is unfair in some ways. But, nevertheless, what we do is a lot more like what an electrician does than what a scientist does. We’re not getting paid to run experiments — we’re getting paid to build things.

There is definitely some validity in this. The three roles in each example have many similarities. His observation that development work is “non-repetitive”, however, is key. Electricians work in a more certain context than doctors who may need to account for body chemistry or metabolism. Likewise, developers may find environmental factors (e.g. memory usage profile, network load, etc.) produce uncertainty in the course of their work. Whereas the plumbing and electrical systems in a house are mostly separate, biological systems and information systems tend to be more intertwined.

Another similarity between software development and the practice of medicine is the feedback loop. The physicist will never hear back from the electrician, but physicians doing research are not similarly removed from practitioners. Practice and theory in medicine have a chicken and egg relationship where neither is clearly dominant, but each influences the other. Likewise with software development. Ethics and practicality in both cases constrain pure research.

As Erik noted, developers are “…not getting paid to run experiments — we’re getting paid to build things”. That being said, the uncertainties mean that, like physicians, we can’t be positive about the exact outcome without trying a particular course of action (which isn’t really an experiment):

Like doctors, those involved in software development have an ethical obligation to let our “patients” know when we’re learning on the job and what the risks are (not to mention the obligation to try things that are in their best interests and not just something we want to test drive). In addition to considerations of professionalism, more open communication has its benefits. We can solve problems and advance the practice at the same time.


6 thoughts on “First Do No Harm – the Practice of Software Development

  1. The comparison of software developers to doctors had never occurred to me until I read this, but I think it’s right on the money. It’s not advancing the cause of the science, per se, but it’s highly context sensitive, complex regarding diagnosis, and reluctantly experimental. This is a great thought. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If we have an obligation to let our vict. . .customers know we are learning on the job don’t we need to let them know we are always learning?

    Note – not sure I will ever use the word experimenting incorrectly again!


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