Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login

The difference between engineering physical things and software is that in "regular engineering" the bulk of the decisions are made in the design phase. You might have issues that crop up during implementation but largely they are small in scope and can be resolved. In "software engineering" your design phase is short and the implementation phase is really long. Design decisions are happening during the coding part.

It doesn't have to be this way. If there were the equivalent of CAE tools for software design where you could easily manipulate modules and the interfaces between them maybe it would happen. (And no, the IDEs today are not there yet).

We need more standard high level reusable components that all the people on the team know. When I need something bolted together or need a simple motor, I've got a bunch of suppliers to handle that. Java and Python and others have these great comprehensive software libraries now, but they only go up to a certain level. I feel like so many software projects are just duplicating the same stuff over and over (exactly what RoR aims to solve in one domain which is why it is so popular). People have been saying this for 30 years now, but people were saying it in mechanical engineering for about 100 before it came to pass so I'm not surprised it will take a long time.

There is also the difference of modeling. When I'm designing something in the physical world I have a bunch of knowledge to apply to the problem. It's not as easy as people are making it out to be (bridges are not exactly trivial problems, especially when compared to 99% of the software written out there. Don't even get me started on what I work on) but there are guides. When I'm deciding what material to use for a part I have a bunch of information about the problem, a bunch of information about the available materials, and there will be some decision making process trading off several factors (cost, corrosion resistance, weight, strength, fatigue etc) and an informed choice is made. When I want to choose between Ruby on Rails and Django, I have a bunch of blog opinions. I can't model out the performance difference between using C++ or Java for a robotics framework. I can't predict what this algorithmn will do to my real time performance. You have to actually DO IT, and then measure it. Sometimes we have this in mech eng. too and we make physical models and test them on a small scale, that CAN happen in software engineering but rarely does it.

So 2 bit take away: the design phase in software engineering could be a lot more like "engineering".

Certainly no one here is trying to make it sound like undertaking a massive engineering effort (like building a bridge) is easy. It's damn hard, and harder than most software projects - and it takes a lot more time and people.

But people do build 'models' on a small scale when doing development. They're called 'prototypes'. Except in this case, they're usually to prototype the functionality, to collect feedback from the users, and not to test the 'engineering' suitability of a given library or framework for the final product. Why? Because satisfying the engineering constraints is not the hardest problem - nor the most important one - and not by a long shot. You can replace pieces of your infrastructure, or write your own, if they don't scale to your needs - but if your product isn't compelling, that's a non-starter.

The 'design phase' of most construction projects is mostly about making engineering decisions. The 'design phase' of software products is more about features, usability, and scope. While engineering plays a role, it's not the biggest one - and you can have plenty of success with bad engineering decisions. The great thing about software development is that if you're successful, you can go back and revisit your earlier decisions - and fix them if necessary.

You can build a bridge that will last a thousand years, but with software it's more important to figure out where to build the bridge TO. Or whether people would prefer a ferry.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact