Software Engineering Practices in an Academic Setting

Researchers: John Reekie, Christopher Hylands, Edward A. Lee
Advisor:Edward A. Lee

The academic culture makes it hard to produce high-quality software with a team of people. First, academia emphasizes individual contributions. Contributions as part of a team are deeply discounted. Second, academia prefers novelty over quality. Very poor quality software is masked by a highly polished paper under the assumption that only the paper, and never the software, will be read. The validity of that assumption has been steadily declining. When high-quality software is produced in academia, it is usually the result only of the super-human effort of a 'hero programmer.'

The culture is changing. First, many academics recognize the inadequacy of natural language for conveying with precision many of the most interesting complex research results. Academic papers make heavy use of formal mathematical languages in an effort to improve precision. But not all research is amenable to such languages. Algorithms, design methodologies, and innovative designs are often best conveyed in software. Software becomes the medium for human communication. But unlike published papers, there is no peer-review mechanism for software, so embarrassingly poor software gets "published."

The Ptolemy project has a long history of making research results available in the form of controlled releases of software for the general research community. In the past, software development efforts in this project relied upon the personal quality standards of a few individuals. We have been systematizing the process with an eye towards producing publishable-quality software without stifling innovation. A key part of the process is a set of methods for teaching new software developers to recognize quality in design. Another key objective is to use software reviews to promote good software practices and collaboration as a team.

Our primary tool is to have regularly scheduled study groups where we cover new areas in topics such as software engineering. Our early study groups covered design patterns and the unified modeling language (UML). As we started to apply what we learned, we started having regular design and code reviews of software under development.

One outgrowth of the design and review system was to implement a code rating system, where code that is less stable is red, code that has been design reviewed is yellow, and code that has been design and code reviewed is green. This made the design of the code a subject that can be explicitly discussed in the team and has also increased the overall quality of the results. More importantly, the reviews are conducted by team members, who benefit by learning to critically evaluate design, as well as by learning in some depth what their colleagues are up to.

The Ptolemy project uses a common code repository supporting concurrent development (based on CVS), and uses automated nightly builds where the results are emailed to all team members. This creates a culture where "breaking the build" is highly deprecated. In addition to the build, scripted test suites are run every night. The status (red, yellow, ...) of all software in the repository is displayed on a web page, together with code coverage metrics and test suite results.

Our initial work is documented in [1]. We are starting to transfer some of our tools to other groups in academia and in industry.

J. Reekie, S. Neuendorffer, C. Hylands and E.A. Lee, " Software Practice in the Ptolemy Project", Technical Report Series GSRC-TR-1999-01, Gigascale Semiconductor Research Center, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA 94720, April 1999.

Last updated 11/05/99