Software Has Always Been Problematic

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Software is like no other product on earth – it is a collection of millions of lines of instructions telling a computer what to do. You can’t “see” software; reading the lines of code would tell you nothing unless you had written the code yourself, and even programmers themselves can easily forget what they did. You must imagine software, and are left to rely on what the software’s creators say about it.

That good software is indispensable goes back to one of the first-ever software projects: an effort in the early 1950s to link together data from radars along the Eastern seaboard that were monitoring possible air and seaborne threats to the United States. Software, it was discovered, could collect, compare and plot radar data on paper much faster than human beings could.

But from software’s early beginnings as an industry in the 1950s and 1960s, business managers have struggled to understand the systems they buy, and the people and firms that market them.

In his excellent history of the software industry, Martin Campbell-Kelly describes the origins of software programming in the 1950s: “Only weeks after the first prototype laboratory computers sprang to life, it became clear that programs had a life of their own – they would take weeks or months to shake down, and they would forever need improvement and modification in response to the demands of a changing environment.” Some things haven’t changed.

Mr. Campbell also describes what must be one of the earliest maddening software experiences. General Electric had purchased a Univac computer in 1954, but it took “nearly 2 years to get a set of basic accounting applications working satisfactorily, one entire programming group having been fired in the process. As a result, the whole area of automated business computing, and Univac especially, had become very questionable in the eyes of many businessmen.”

We are 60 years into the commercial software industry, and while applications have become much more powerful, they are still prone to failure.  Large projects still fail at a high level, and the sums spent are much greater than 60 years ago.

So the challenge remains: not to build more powerful or smarter applications, but to build and integrate software into an enterprise in a predictable, reliable and cost-sensible way.

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