Where Did All the Designers Go!
Software is one of the fastest paced industries in the business world. As quickly as software languages come and go, skill sets require constant learning. In trying to keep up with implementation aspects of software, did we somehow forget about the priority of creating a good design? This article describes how we came about with a void of software design skills in the programming world.
Edited by Nina
As a consultant, you often
find yourself looking at other people's code. That is because you are often
asked to finish an existing product, or to make an existing product work
correctly. One of the most frustrating aspects of inheriting preexisting code is
that invariably the code was written with only rudimentary consideration of the
design process. "How can that be?", you wonder. "I thought all software
programmers are designers by nature." If you believe this, you've swallowed the
biggest myth of all time. Software developers are rarely designers. In fact, I
have come across so few real software designers over the years that I ask
myself, who is even creating the software products for our industry? What has
caused this dearth of design talent in the industry? After some thought and
investigation, I have compiled a list of reasons as follows:
Software design is not taught in our universities.
Why not? Why isn't the most
important aspect of writing software the first required course for this major in
in universities and other learning institutions?? Why is Software 101 about
writing code or about understanding some computer language? Professors are more
interested in the number theory behind the software.Concepts like
recursion and data structures are a lot more sexy in the academic
world than iterative development and refactoring and
software testing. When
computer programming first entered the curriculumabout 25 years
ago, it wasn't even an engineering discipline in many schools; computer
programming was in the math department! Have we come a long way since then? I'm
not so sure.
Talent Scouts are only looking for Coders.
Part of the problem is
marketing. Job listings cite implementation-specific skills like Java or
C++ or C#. Rarely does a job description list in its criteria a
proficient, experienced software designer. Recruiters pick up on this and feed
their clients what they are demanding. Recruiters actually scan resumes for
"implementation-oriented" key words. The result? A job market with a glut of
implementers and no designers.
Companies now outsource most
of their coding. They think they know what they need and the skills required
to do a competent job and they provide a basic requirement spec.The company is
on a tight deadline, and demands an unrealistic turnaround. The contractor
doesn't waste time with something as lowly as design. He goes straight to
the code with some vague notion of "n-tier development" in the back of his mind.
are no credentials for Software Engineering
Before you go to med school
you need to take the MCAT's, to go through a stringent application process, to
get in, and survive 4 or more grueling years. When you leave medical school you
are certified and licensed to practice medicine. You then complete a residency
to specialize in your field in order to independently treat patients. To become
a software engineer, you merely just say it on your resume. "Hi, I'm a software
engineer!" And what does that mean to a potential employee? It means anything
from writing a VB Program for balancing a checkbook to architecting a complex
aviation system. It is not clear to anyone what qualifies someone as a good
software engineer. Granted, when someone applies for a job as a software
engineer, the employer should know exactly what to ask the candidate to
determine if he knows something about software engineering. But in my entire
career, I rarely have been tested on my software engineering skills. A
prospective employer is more likely to ask "How do you put up a message box in
windows SDK?". The questions tend to be implementation specific. I remember
taking a test for one of the top software consulting firms on Wall Street and
the entire exam consisted of esoteric implementation-specific questions about
C#. Great. You wonder if that firm ended up with a bunch of jeopardy contestants
who would be wizzes in the category... "I'll take, "What is the IL code for a
finalize block for $200?".
Employers use poor judgment
Employers need to be
educated also. If the senior software engineer in your company is not doing any
design, do you think that the manager who hired him is even aware of it? Those
managers are asking the same vanilla questions. "We are developing in C#, Do you
employers are focused on the tools and not the nuanced skills essential to
creating a quality product. Admittedly, a few knowledgeable interviewers have
requested custom-tailored designs for their systems. These managers value
programmers who understand the importance of design.
Engineering and Programming have gotten a Divorce.
Engineers are always taught
to design first and implement later. When you design a chip, you don't create it
immediately. You draw it on a CAD System, test it, simulate it, and are trained
to follow a process which begins with concept and design. If a chip is poorly
designed, the host company will spend fruitless money creating the
physical circuit. When an aeronautical engineer designs an airplane, does he
just slap a set of wings on a piece of metal and throw it in the air to see if
it can fly? No. He designs it on a CAD system, simulates stress under different
conditions, models the airplane as a system that must meet rigorous criteria,
tests it, tests it, and tests it some more. The airplane designer needs to meet
a set of strict standards in order to pass the spec. And what would happen if
the aeronautical engineer did not design and test thoroughly? I don't want to
think about that.
What about the software
engineer? How analogous is programming to other engineering disciplines? Not
much. There is too much temptation to rush to the implementation phase. Heck,
why design anything when you can already start coding and see what happens?
Right? Developers don't think ahead to the cost of troubleshooting and
correcting software that hasn't been designed effectively. It's not as black and
white as a bad yield of 1,000,000 defective processors, or a poorly crafted
airplane. Because software is more intangible, it's easier to justify a
shoddy job on development - after all, it can always be "cleaned up" later. "If
the software isn't working right, I'll just fix it... just a couple lines of
Engineering Talent has fallen by the wayside.
If it's hard enough to find
a programmer, how the heck am I going to find a good software designer? With the
lack of people going into IT these days (due in part to the Internet boom-bust
in the late 90's), most managers will take what they can get. As with any
commodity, software talent is a matter of supply and demand. Given today's
woeful under-supply of IT talent, the price for a programmer/designer is high.
Start ups and small businesses with tight finances are more likely to hire
someone out of school. Even large companies want to keep their profit margins
high by paying for less expensive talent. There is nothing inherently wrong with
an economical approach, but these employers are not aware that schools are
graduating programmers with no understanding of design. The reality is that good
design technique is learned on the job, and so those who are skilled and
proficient are invariably seasoned programmers with many years under their
Let's ask the question
another way. Would you want recently graduated engineer designing the airplane
you fly on? No. You would want that engineer to work for several years under a
mentor who would teach the ropes of designing a solid airplane How about the
software engineer? Would you want someone with no experience to code the heart
and soul of your business? Probably not unless they were working with a senior
software designer. But with the lack of IT talent compounded with a lack of
design talent, plus the aging and retiring of baby boomers, who made an
impressive contribution to the software industry, the core products of many
businesses are created by programmers with zero design experience Businesses
don't understand that programming is like designing an airplane until it's too
we solve the problem of poorly trained software developers? How can we get
the current pool of software developers to think like designers? First,
universities and other centers of learning need to emphasize software design
over pure theoretical programming. If I were a teacher in the software field, I
would not introduce any computer language in the first semester. Design concepts
would be the foundation of any computer course. Secondly, employers need to
reframe job descriptions so that implementation-specific languages are not the
only requirement. If you are an employer, screen potential candidates for
design. Also, consider hiring someone whose expertise is design and
architecture. They can work with an implementer after the design is finished.
Software products should be from the brainchild of 90% design and 10%
implementation rather than current, dismal 10% design and 90% implementation.
The benefits of concentrating on design first range from better maintainability
of existing products to easier reuse for spinning off additional products.
Whether it's airplanes, cars, molecules, clothing, or software, a focus on
design over implementation will in the end determine the quality of your labors.