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Book Review: Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering

August 23, 2010


Having this book on my shelf for quite some time now, I finally decided to to make my way through reading Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering written by Robert L. Glass. As the title already implies, this well-established author lays down 55 facts and 10 fallacies about software engineering based on his half a century experience in the field.

The facts are divided in four categories: management, lifecycle, quality and research. The fallacies are split into three categories: management, lifecycle and education. Each of these categories have their own more specific sub-categories in which these facts and fallacies are classified. This way its easy to pickup the content about a particular topic of choice. Although I read the book from cover to cover, it isn’t required to do so. All facts and fallacies can be read on their own but occasionally the author refers to the discussion of other facts/fallacies in the book.

All facts and fallacies are laid down using the following structure:

  • The fact/fallacy itself is presented and discussed.
  • After which the controversies about a particular fact/fallacy are presented.
  • Finally, a list of books and articles are enumerated that were a source of information regarding the fact/fallacy. Some of these sources are ancient, some are more recent.

Here’s the list of facts:

  1. The most important factor in software work is the quality of the programmers.
  2. The best programmers are up to 28 times better than the worst programmers.
  3. Adding people to a late project makes it later.
  4. The working environment has a profound impact on productivity and quality.
  5. Hype (about tools and technology) is a plague on the house of software.
  6. New tools and techniques cause an initial loss of productivity / quality.
  7. Software developers talk a lot about tools, but seldom use them.
  8. One of the two most common causes of runaway projects is poor estimation.
  9. Software estimation usually occurs at the wrong time.
  10. Software estimation is usually done by the wrong people.
  11. Software estimates are rarely corrected as the project proceeds.
  12. It is not surprising that software estimates are bad. But we live and die by them anyway!
  13. There is a disconnect between software management and their programmers.
  14. The answer to a feasibility study is almost always "yes".
  15. Reuse-in-the-small is a solved problem.
  16. Reuse-in-the-large remains a mostly unsolved problem.
  17. Reuse-in-the-large works best in families of related systems.
  18. Reusable components are three times as hard to build and should be tried out in three different settings.
  19. Modification of reused code is particularly error-prone.
  20. Design pattern reuse is one solution to the problems of code reuse.
  21. For every 25 percent increase in problem complexity, there is a 100 percent increase in solution complexity.
  22. Eighty percent of software work is intellectual. A fair amount of it is creative. Little of it is clerical.
  23. One of the two most common causes of runaway projects is unstable requirements.
  24. Requirements errors are the most expensive to fix during production.
  25. Missing requirements are the hardest requirements errors to correct.
  26. Explicit requirements 'explode' as implicit requirements for a solution evolve.
  27. There is seldom one best design solution to a software problem.
  28. Design is a complex, iterative process. Initial design solutions are usually wrong and certainly not optimal.
  29. Designer 'primitives' rarely match programmer 'primitives'.
  30. COBOL is a very bad language, but all the others are so much worse.
  31. Error removal is the most time-consuming phase of the lifecycle.
  32. Software is usually tested at best to the 55 to 60 percent coverage level.
  33. One hundred percent test coverage is still far from enough.
  34. Test tools are essential, but rarely used.
  35. Test automation rarely is. Most testing activities cannot be automated.
  36. Programmer-created, built-in debug code is an important supplement to testing tools.
  37. Rigorous inspections can remove up to 90 percent of errors before the first test case is run.
  38. Rigorous inspections should not replace testing.
  39. Post-delivery reviews, postmortems, and retrospectives are important and seldom performed.
  40. Reviews are both technical and sociological, and both factors must be accommodated.
  41. Maintenance typically consumes 40 to 80 percent of software costs. It is probably the most important software lifecycle phase.
  42. Enhancements represent roughly 60 percent of maintenance costs.
  43. Maintenance is a solution-- not a problem.
  44. Understanding the existing product is the most difficult maintenance task.
  45. Better methods lead to more maintenance, not less.
  46. Quality is a collection of attributes.
  47. Quality is not user satisfaction, meeting requirements, achieving cost and schedule, or reliability.
  48. There are errors that most programmers tend to make.
  49. Errors tend to cluster.
  50. There is no single best approach to software error removal.
  51. Residual errors will always persist. The goal should be to minimize or eliminate severe errors.
  52. Efficiency stems more from good design than good coding.
  53. High-order language code can be about 90 percent as efficient as comparable assembler code.
  54. There are tradeoffs between optimizing for time and optimizing for space.
  55. Many researchers advocate rather than investigate.

And the list of fallacies:

  1. You can't manage what you can't measure.
  2. You can manage quality into a software product.
  3. Programming can and should be egoless.
  4. Tools and techniques: one size fits all.
  5. Software needs more methodologies.
  6. To estimate cost and schedule, first estimate lines of code.
  7. Random test input is a good way to optimize testing.
  8. "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow".
  9. The way to predict future maintenance costs and to make product replacement decisions is to look at past cost data.
  10. You teach people how to program by showing them how to write programs.

Although this book has been published in 2004, the topics that are discussed in this book very much apply today and probably many years to come. I personally got the most from the facts about people, estimation, testing and maintenance. I really enjoyed reading this fascinating book and I encourage you to pick it up as well. Awareness of these facts and fallacies, whether you agree or disagree with them, is the first step to improving our craft.

If you and your team want to learn more about how to write maintainable unit tests and get the most out of TDD practices, make sure to have look at our trainings and workshops or check out the books section. Feel free to reach out at

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Jan Van Ryswyck

Thank you for visiting my blog. I’m a professional software developer since Y2K. A blogger since Y2K+5. Provider of training and coaching in XP practices. Curator of the Awesome Talks list. Past organizer of the European Virtual ALT.NET meetings. Thinking and learning about all kinds of technologies since forever.



Thank you for visiting my website. I’m a professional software developer since Y2K. A blogger since Y2K+5. Author of Writing Maintainable Unit Tests. Provider of training and coaching in XP practices. Curator of the Awesome Talks list. Thinking and learning about all kinds of technologies since forever.

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