CSCI 5828

Foundations of Software Engineering

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An early history of software engineering by Robert L. Glass

The following article is a condensation of the ideas of Robert L. Glass in his book "In the Beginning: Recollections of Software Pioneers" about the history of software engineering.

Glass first cautions the reader that "The most frequent mistake is the assumption that progress in those early days was slow and plodding and that not much was happening in the field."

Glass divides the era of software engineering into three periods:

The Pioneering Era (1955-1965)

  • The most important development was that new computers were coming out almost every year or two, rendering existing ones obsolete. Software people had to rewrite all their programs to run on these new machines.
  • Programmers did not have computers on their desks and had to go to the "machine room".
  • Jobs were run by signing up for machine time or by operational staff. Jobs were run by putting punched cards for input into the machine's card reader and waiting for results to come back on the printer.
  • The field was so new that the idea of management by schedule was non-existent. Making predictions of a project's completion date was almost impossible.
  • Computer hardware was application-specific. Scientific and business tasks needed different machines.
  • Due to the need to frequently translate old software to meet the needs of new machines, high-order languages like FORTRAN, COBOL, and ALGOL were developed.
  • Hardware vendors gave away systems software for free as hardware could not be sold without software. A few companies sold the service of building custom software but no software companies were selling packaged software.
  • The notion of reuse flourished. As software was free, user organizations commonly gave it away. Groups like IBM's scientific user group SHARE offered catalogs of reusable components.
  • Academia did not yet teach the principles of computer science.
  • Modular programming and data abstraction were already being used in programming.

The Stabilizing Era (1965-1980)

  • The whole job-queue system had been institutionalized and so programmers no longer ran their jobs except for peculiar applications like on-board computers. To handle the jobs, an enormous bureaucracy had grown up around the central computer center.
  • The major problem as a result of this bureaucracy was turnaround time, the time between job submission and completion. At worst it was measured in days.
  • Then came the IBM 360. It signaled the beginning of the stabilizing era. This was the largest software project to date. It put an end to the era of a faster and cheaper computer emerging every year or two. Software people could finally spend time writing new software instead of rewriting the old. The 360 also combined scientific and business applications onto one machine. It offered both binary and decimal arithmetic. With the advent of the 360, the organizational separation between scientific and business application people came to diminish and this had a massive impact on the sociology of the field. Scientific programmers who usually had bachelor degrees felt superior to business programmers who usually held only associate degrees. One scientific programmer remarked: "I don't mind working with business programmers, but I wouldn't want my daughter to marry one!"
  • The massive operating system, still coming largely free with the computer, controlled most of the services that a running program needed.
  • The job control language JCL raised a whole new class of problems. The programmer had to write the program in a whole new language to tell the computer and OS what to do. JCL was the least popular feature of the 360.
  • PL/I, introduced by IBM to merge all programming languages into one, failed.
  • The demand for programmers exceeded the supply.
  • The notion of timesharing, using terminals at which jobs could be directly submitted to queues of various kinds was beginning to emerge, meeting with some resistance from traditionalists.
  • As the software field stabilized, software became a corporate asset and its value became huge.
  • Stability lead to the emergence of academic computing disciplines in the late 60's. However the software engineering discipline did not yet exist.
  • Many "high-hype" disciplines like Artificial Intelligence came into existence. As these new concepts could not be converted into predicted benefits, the credibility of the computing field began to diminish.
  • "Structured Programming" burst on the scene in the middle of this era.
  • Standards organizations became control battle grounds. The vendor who defined the standards could gain significant competitive advantage by making the standards match their own technology.
  • Although hardware vendors tried to put a brake on the software industry by keeping their prices low, software vendors emerged a few at a time.
  • Most customized applications continued to be done in-house.
  • Programmers still had to go to the "machine room" and did not have computers on their desks.

The Micro Era (1980-Present)

  • The price of computing has dropped dramatically making ubiquitous computing possible. Now every programmer can have a computer on his desk.
  • The old JCL has been replaced by the user-friendly GUI.
  • The field still has its problems. The software part of the hardware architecture that the programmer must know about, such as the instruction set, has not changed much since the advent of the IBM mainframe and the first Intel chip. The most-used programming languages today are between 15 and 40 years old. The Fourth Generation Languages never achieved the dream of "programming without programmers" and the idea is pretty much limited to report generation from databases. There is an increasing clamor though for more and better software research.

© Ken Anderson, 1999.
Last Updated: 10/08/02; 9:23:25 PM