September 2007 Letters

The increasing complexity of software design shouldn't take anyone by surprise.

A colleague pointed out Kathleen Dollard's recent guest opinion about the increasing complexity of designing computer software ["Pace of Change Leaves No One Competent," Guest Opinion, VSM May 2007].

At its core, I think her assertion is correct: We are getting to the point where a single person is unlikely to be able to design applications alone.

That's nothing so very remarkable, if you ask me. When you get down to it, creating computer programs is a type of manufacturing. There are design and composition elements to it, and complex applications have multiple aspects of design and composition. In this respect, creating computer applications is no different than creating other kinds of manufactured goods, whether an electric pencil sharpener, a box of pudding, or a computer.

These items have varying levels of complexity, but I doubt any single person builds the entire project from scratch, the way it is assumed a single developer might build an application. I admit I don't know much about manufacturing electric pencil sharpeners, but I doubt the person who manufactures something as basic as an electric pencil sharpener oversees the construction of the entire process, nor does he need to. Even if he is familiar with plastics and the molding process, and he can design and implement the molding of the plastic, it's unlikely that he has the expertise to create the motor that makes it go. At a more granular level, even if he can assemble the motor, he probably lacks the expertise to create the motor's metal parts himself. And so on.

It's immaterial that one person can't do every step of the design process required to manufacture an electric pencil sharpener. Indeed, your pencil sharpener is much cheaper and works better for it, because the people with the right expertise work on and supply the right aspects of it.

So yes, like other kinds of manufacturing, I think you are seeing similar efficiencies on the computer software side. Our applications are being consumed by ever-larger numbers of people, and we face ever-expanding requirements in constructing our applications. It's not reasonable to expect one person to meet the all the challenges of creating a well-rounded application by himself, nor should we want that. What is preferable is to let the people with the right kind of expertise handle the appropriate aspects of the job. This is our future, and our software and user experiences will be better for it.

Robert Boucher
received by e-mail

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