Software failure is an opportunity for learning and exploration

15 November 2019

My research in the fields of software engineering and software testing focuses on the design, implementation, and experimental evaluation of automated techniques for finding and fixing the defects that lead to software failure. Even though much of my professional work develops methods to avoid software failure, I’ve also learned that when software fails it is an opportunity for me to learn about why it failed and to explore alternatives to, for instance, the approach that lead to the failure or the software that itself failed. After reflecting on my research and teaching experiences, it is now clear that I’ve greatly benefited from software failures!

Here are a few examples that help to illustrate my point.

  • Journey from Windows to Linux: During my first internship I saw that many of the software engineers at the company were using Linux as their main operating system and thus I started to use it as well. Although I looked up to those engineers and understood the opportunities that Linux provided to me, I was concerned that I would not be able to install it correctly on my own computer. Once the internship finished and I returned to college and a desktop computer that was still running Windows, I experienced anew the failings of that operating system. Ultimately, I decided to take the plunge and after a significant amount of trial and error and a lot of help from my fellow computer science majors, I finally got Linux to work on my computer. Now, nearly 25 years later I’m still delighted to use Linux for all of my computing tasks!

  • Adventures in Text Editors: When I started programming I used the TextEdit text editor integrated into the NeXTSTEP operating system. Later, whenever I used a Linux or Solaris workstation I ran Pico to edit text. After finding myself limited by both of those editors I jumped into the world of Emacs when I saw another student in the lab using it on their computer. I was happy with Emacs for many years until I started to implement large and complex Java programs as a graduate student and an instructor. Humorously, I switched to Vim when I learned that it featured a package that supported Java programming through a connection to an Eclipse server. Even though I no longer use Vim to program in Java with that package, I’ve continued to use Vim, and then Neovim, for years, ultimately finding a text editor that helps me to effectively edit emails, Markdown, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, LaTeX, Python, R, Java, and more!

  • Victories with Version Control: Throughout my undergraduate and graduate education in computer science and then my early years as computer science instructor, I used a variety of version control systems including the source code control system (SCCS), revision control system (RCS), concurrent versions system (CVS), subversion (SVN), and Git. Although I benefited from personally using SCCS and RCS, I became frustrated with attempting to use them in a team setting, ultimately adopting CVS and then SVN. I can also remember first struggling to use Git, always wondering why I had to run my own server or daemon to share files with collaborators in a decentralized fashion. Even though I delightfully adopted the use of Bitbucket for all of my teaching and research I never really felt completely victorious with version control until I adopted GitHub and GitHub Classroom for all of my teaching and research!

  • Struggles with Statistical Analysis: Since some of my computer science graduate courses required me to program in Matlab, I decided that, after using it for system design and simulation, I might as well try it for data analysis and visualization! However, since the institution at which I was an instructor had a site license to Mathematica, I later adopted it for all of my statistical analysis and data visualization tasks. Using Mathematica and Matlab soon proved frustrating since, as commercial software, I could not share them with my graduating students or my colleagues who worked at institutions that did not have these expensive tools. One summer I gave up and rewrote tens of thousands of lines of code in Matlab and Mathematica in the R language for statistical computation. While I always appreciated R through many years of use, it never felt to me like a general-purpose programming language and, in recent years, I have begun to adopt Python for all my statistical and visualization tasks. More importantly, I can no longer imagine using commercial software for any of my computational tasks!

  • Wishing for a Wonderful Window Manager: Although I’ve been using Linux and terminal windows for years, I never preferred to interact with the operating system solely through a single console. This means that I’ve used a wide variety of window managers and desktop environments, like fvwm2 and Enlightenment. Once Ubuntu started to ship with the Unity desktop environment I happily used it for years, learning how to tweak it so that it was as minimal as possible. When Unity was no longer available in Ubuntu, I briefly tried to use GNOME Shell, only to find it too slow for my laptop and too cumbersome for my daily use. Even after multiple recommendations to use the i3 window manager, I was hesitant to adopt it due to concerns about the time required to create another customized configuration. After the failings of GNOME became too much for me, I learned more about i3 from friends who were already using it, leveraging their configurations to craft one of my own. Today, my customized configuration of i3 is a delight to use and I could not imagine returning to heavy-weight environments such as Unity or GNOME Shell!

In summary, I might still be using Windows, plotting data with commercial software, and managing my own version control server if it were not for all of these frustrating experiences with software! Was making a change to the new software painful? Was it time consuming to learn the ins-and-outs of a new program? Yes and yes. But, was it worth it? Yes, absolutely!

Do you have your own experiences with software failure? Have you seen the benefits of a program no longer meeting your needs? If you have, then I hope that you will contact me to share some of your thoughts. Or, do you want to be updated when I publish new blog posts like this one? If you do, then please subscribe to my mailing list.

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