May 2016

May 2016

What software engineering has to do with history, politics or law?

When at school, I always prefered scientific classes (like mathematics) over humanities. Among my most hated classes were: history, geography and language/literature. That's why I chose to become a programmer. But despite computer science is a scientific discipline, I can see that on a higher level, software engineering involves some humanities like, for example, history, politics or law.

History, because in software - just like in real life - you need to know what happened in the past to be able to understand the state of things we have right now. For example, in the field of graphics API-s, someone asked a question on Programmers Stack Exchange: Why do game developers prefer Windows? The best answer is the one that extensively explains how two main API-s - DirectX and OpenGL - evolved over years.

Politics, because top-level decisions are not always made based on purely technical arguments. Going back to graphics API-s, Microsoft decided to push its next-generation low-level Direct3D 12 into Windows 10 only, while Khronos Group defined Vulkan as an open, multiplatform standard. Google was rumored to design its own graphics API, was even asked by John Carmack not to do so, and it finally returned to the negotiation table with Khronos, so Android N will support Vulkan as well. Apple chose different path and did design its own graphics API - Metal. Similarly, in the GPGPU field, OpenCL is a widely supported standard, but NVIDIA succeeded in promoting its own, vendor-specific API: CUDA. HSA is yet another such initiative, led by a foundation. Among its members are: AMD, ARM, Imagination, Qualcomm, Samsung and many others, but the list lacks some big players, like Intel or NVIDIA. So developing software technology is a little bit like doing politics - "Am I strong enough to go against the others or do I need to seek allies?"

And finally, the law. Specifications of programming languages and API-s are somewhat like acts passed by the government. They are written in natual language, but should be as unambiguous as possible, precisely defining each term, specifying what is allowed and what is not. Doing something against the specification is like breaking the law - it may go unnoticed, it may even give you an advantage (like programmers notoriously relying on signed integer overlow in C++, despite formally it's an undefined behavior), but you may also "get caught" (and get a compilation error or invalid results from your program). On the other hand, a compiler or API implementor not complying to the specification is more serious problem - it's like a state official breaking the law against you. You may just accept your fate and go away (equivalent of not using broken feature and looking for some workaround) or you may report it (so the bug will be fixed in new compiler/driver/library version).

So although software engineering is a scientific/technical discipline, I think that on a higher level it can be compared to some degree to humanities like history, politics or law.

Comments (0) | Tags: philosophy | Author: Adam Sawicki | Share

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