but a number of characteristics nonetheless make software engineering unique: abstraction, complexity, malleability, and an inherent trade-off of correctness and function against time.

That software engineering deals with an abstract world differentiates it from chemical engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering, all of which run up against physical constraints. Students of the latter disciplines spend a great deal of time learning the laws of physics; yet there are tools for working with those laws that, although hard to develop initially, can be applied by many people in the building of many different artifacts. In software, by contrast, everything is possible, Dr. Lam said: “We don’t have these physical laws, and it is up to us to figure out what the logical structure is and to develop an abstract toolbox for each domain.” In Dr. Lam’s opinion, this abstraction, which carries with it the necessity of studying each separate domain in order to learn how artifacts may be built in it, makes software much more difficult than other fields of engineering.

The Most Complex Thing Humans Build

As to complexity, a subject raised by previous speakers, software may be the most complex thing that humans have learned how to build. This complexity is at least in part responsible for the fact that software development is still thriving in the United States. Memory chips, a product of electrical engineering, have left this country for Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. But complexity makes software engineering hard, and the United States continues to do very well in it.

The third characteristic is malleability. Building software is very different from building many other things—bridges, for example. The knowledge of how to build bridges accrues, but with each new bridge the engineer has a chance to start all over again, to put in all the new knowledge. When it comes to software, however, it takes time for hundreds of millions of lines of code to accrue, which is precisely how software’s complexity arises. A related problem is that of migrating the software that existed a long time ago to the present, with the requirements having changed in the meantime—a problem that again suggests an analogy to the Winchester Mystery House.

Trading Off Correctness Against Other Pluses

That no one really knows how to build perfect software—because it is abstract, complex, and at the same time malleable—gives rise to its fourth unique aspect: It can work pretty well even if it is not 100 percent correct.12 “There is a choice here in trading off correctness for more features, more function, and better


While this is true for software designed for “robustness” or “fault tolerance,” in the absence of redundancy precision may be lost in results when systems are designed this way.

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