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22 Responses to “Of Aviation Crashes and Software Bugs”

  1. links for 2008-05-22 — Chip’s Quips on May 22nd, 2008 2:33 am

    […] Of Aviation Crashes and Software Bugs : Gustavo Duarte If airplanes were flown like software is written, we’d all be dead. (tags: programming languages debugging quality testing) Tags: c, codinghorror, comparison, consulting, creativity, debugging, development, eiffel, java, languages, perl, php, programming, python, quality, questions, ruby, smalltalk, techrepublic, testing, visualbasic […]

  2. Andrew Cowenhoven on May 23rd, 2008 9:54 am

    Excellent post as usual.

    I would add to your list:

    * Have you been effectively trained in the use of the tools at your current job?

    * Have you been effectively trained in the business rules of your current job and do you know why you are writing the code you have been asked to write?

    In my career the above has almost never happened at any of my jobs. I would even go so far as to say that the ability to function in the absence of the above defines what we call a “good” programmer.

    Other industries would never tolerate the absence of specific and relevant on the job training that is common in software development teams.

  3. apotheon on May 23rd, 2008 8:33 pm

    I checked out the Writing Solid Code page at Amazon, and it looks like it’d be a good read with one unfortunate exception — it seems, from what the Amazon page says, to be very Microsoft-platform centric. Is that an incorrect impression, or would I basically need to start doing more development for Microsoft platforms and with Microsoft tools to be able to make the best use of the book?

    Also … you didn’t exactly endorse the book, you just quoted it. Is it actually all that good overall?

    As for the rest of the essay, I’ve got to say that I find it pretty agreeable. Thanks for a good write-up of the topic.

  4. anonymoustroll on May 23rd, 2008 10:16 pm

    I’ve often joked that the quickest way to reduce the amount of trusted code is to require all code that runs with privileges to be coded in upper case.

    …you know how much programmers and anyone with a clue hates upper case.

    I’m telling you… it would work!

  5. Gustavo Duarte on May 23rd, 2008 10:16 pm

    Hi there,

    Thanks for the comments, I’m glad you guys like the post.

    @Andrew: I totally agree. It’s insane, really, the way most companies handle this. Especially because it’s a penny wise pound foolish thing: they waste a lot of money due to this lack of training.

    This post sort of focused on security – in that area I see companies scrambling to hire application security people, spending a ton of money to patch broken apps, etc – when they could easily train people on how to write better code, and most programmers would actually enjoy learning.

    The point about the business rules is even better though. Gosh, how many projects were horribly off-target because people didn’t have the _faintest_ idea of the business behind the app – not to mention the other way around, how much improvement is missed on because programmers don’t know how they could help out.

    Yea, training definitely belongs in the list

    @apotheon: It does look like that from the Amazon page, but it’s not at all Microsoft centric. I guess back in 1993 it was cool to put “Microsoft” on book covers :) How times change. hehe.

    Now, the book _is_ C-centric. The examples are all C, and some of the information is specific to C. I’d say if you don’t do C programming, you would miss out on some of the book’s value.

    With that caveat, I do think it’s an excellent read, full of good advice, well written, and the author is clearly a great programmer.

    @anonymoustroll: hahahah. Sounds good to me :) . Maybe we should write Bernstein and suggest it.

  6. Mitch on May 23rd, 2008 10:22 pm

    Excellent post. But I think we software engineers have it all wrong – it’s not the implementation that’s wrong, it’s the design that’s wrong:

    http://softwareindustrialization.com/TheHumbleSoftwareEngineer.aspx

  7. anonymoustroll on May 24th, 2008 11:51 am

    one of the software development processes that works a little closer to the NTSB/FAA feedback loop would the code that launches the space shuttle.

    I remember seeing an dead-tree article about that several years ago, but unfortunately i don’t remember the publication or even know if it’s available online.

    Ask around… it’s worth the effort to track it down if you’re really interested in how software development can be done right.

  8. Gustavo Duarte on May 24th, 2008 12:16 pm

    @Mitch: thanks for the link, this Alloy stuff from MIT is really interesting. My undergrad was math and I loved analysis and proofs, so I’m pretty interested in this kind of thing. Bernstein himself is a mathematician. However, I hold the standard position that the ‘traditional’ software proofs are impractical, but I also think that there’s likely to be a middle ground where the compiler can do a lot more work for us.

    With threading for example, it seems SO likely that you should be able to _state_ the behavior you need with respect to concurrency and let the compiler figure it out, rather than doing lock()s yourself.

    So, anyway, some sort of hybrid between full verification and zero verification. I need to read more on this, I’m pretty ignorant, so thanks for the link.

    @anonymoustroll: Sounds interesting, thanks for the tip. I’m currently without a way to do good journal / academic searches, but I’m setting one up soon, and I’ll look for this. I have read some about the shuttle software engineering (I wrote a post about Feynman, the Challenger, and software in February), but I’d love to learn more about that stuff.

  9. Name on May 24th, 2008 1:18 pm

    > Is it at all possible to avoid explicit threading? If so, shun threads because they’re a bad idea.

    Threads are not inherently a bad idea, and using them does not cause errors any more than using a relational database causes SQL injection. Just like the solution to SQL injection is a layer of abstraction over the underlying SQL, the solution to threading-related bugs is to use a language or library that abstracts away the details. The Erlang language is an excellent example of this.

  10. Gustavo Duarte on May 24th, 2008 1:36 pm

    [edited at 3:24pm]

    @Name: My first response was hurried – I was going to the park with my kids. heheh. I actually completely agree with what you say here. The concept of threading is not inherently busted – it better not be, given the reality of multi-cores. But the way most languages approach is screwed, Erlang is an exception to the rule.

    Here’s the original:

    @Name: it is _far_ more difficult to prevent threading problems in most languages than it is to prevent SQL injections. And the threading API of most languages is inherently a bad idea.

    But you’re right, Erlang is a great example of how to go about it. We also need strategies for other languages though, and I suspect using immutable/read-only data structures might be a big part of it.

  11. apotheon on May 24th, 2008 1:39 pm

    > It does look like that from the Amazon page, but it’s not at all Microsoft centric. I guess back in 1993 it was cool to put “Microsoft” on book covers How times change. hehe.

    Okay, thanks. That’s a relief. I’m moving it from “low” priority on my Amazon wishlist up to “medium”, as a result of that clarification.

    > Now, the book _is_ C-centric. The examples are all C, and some of the information is specific to C. I’d say if you don’t do C programming, you would miss out on some of the book’s value.

    That’s perfectly fine by me. One of my next major goals with regard to programming projects (by the end of this year, I hope) is to start seriously re-familiarizing myself with C. It’s been a while since I’ve really done anything with C, and I feel the need to get back to it. So: sounds like a good book to add to the queue.

  12. Mitch on May 24th, 2008 3:09 pm

    As Dijkstra said, “program testing can be used to show the presence of bugs, but never to show their absence!”

    I hope you get a chance to check Alloy out more closely because it is definitely not like “traditional” formal methods:

    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=dependable-software-by-de&print=true

    Keep up the good writings!

  13. Gustavo Duarte on May 24th, 2008 3:31 pm

    @apotheon: you’re welcome. Now that you mention you’re particularly interested in C though, there’s another book I would recommend:

    Expert C Programming

    This one is more popular, it’s a general (advanced) C book and not focused on correct code like Writing Solid Code. But it’s a really good book, very well written, one of the best programming books I’ve read. The guy is a master of C, goes over exactly the trouble spots, and writes in a fun (not dorky) way and mixes in some cool CS examples and folklore. Really cool book, I think all C programmers should read it, and due to the writing style it’s pleasurable to do so.

    @Mitch: cool, I’m definitely going to check it out.

  14. anonymoustroll on May 24th, 2008 6:35 pm

    After a couple of minutes of google searching (I guess the article isn’t *that* old):

    http://www.fastcompany.com/node/28121/print

  15. apotheon on May 25th, 2008 1:17 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve added that to my Amazon wishlist, too.

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  17. kevin liu on June 11th, 2008 10:10 am

    enjoyed your article, keep up the good work!

  18. Michael Greenberg on June 17th, 2008 11:38 am

    @Mitch: It’s a little bit ironic that you use Alloy as your example of static verification, since it operates under the assumption that counterexamples will be small. Alloy does bounded verification, guaranteeing that your model is correct — for models up to some size. What Alloy does not offer is a wholesale proof of correctness.

    Better examples of correct-by-construction programs would be the Coq/Isabelle/etc. crowd, which can guarantee rigorous correctness, as well as some of the fancier systems like Sage (which makes an interesting compromise between static and dynamic guarantees, treating propositions that the theorem prover can’t guarantee as assertions to be checked at run time). Granted, all of those systems still aren’t ready for use as real programming languages, and are entirely unsuited to some tasks. On the other side of the coin, (unbounded!) SAT solvers offer real proof at cheaper and cheaper prices (e.g., Saturn).

    Hopefully the success of GC in (now, rather efficiently) eliminating a class of problems will eventually spread to other elements of programming languages and design processes. Tools like Alloy, Coq, and Saturn all have something to contribute.

  19. Alex on August 20th, 2008 5:06 pm

    I feel very much the same way. Lets face it. Most software sucks. Look at the source code of any open source application and it’s clear they have had more than one developer working on the source.

    Something I strive for is such high consistency that it looks like my code was generated. I find consistency helps me keep my train of thought without getting lost in little details.

    Architecture is also something usually missing from most PHP software projects. Look at all the open source projects and try and find any kind of consistency in architecture and you’ll discombobulated in minutes.

    http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/06/writestuff.html

    I see someone already posted that link above but it’s always been a motivator for me to write solid software.

    Their bugs per line is extremely low and rightfully so…I think I got into the wrong area of software development. I should have tried to get into mission critical systems as opposed to buggy, slow, insecure, bloated carelessly written software.

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