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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: December 2014

4 - Programming languages and software engineering


The major cause of the software crisis is that the machines have become several orders of magnitude more powerful! To put it quite bluntly: as long as there were no machines, programming was no problem at all; when we had a few weak computers, programming became a mild problem, and now we have gigantic computers, programming has become an equally gigantic problem.

Edsger Dijkstra

The software crisis

The term software engineering originated in the early 1960s, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization sponsored the first conference on the “software crisis” in 1968 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, West Germany. It was at this conference that the term software engineering first appeared. The conference reflected on the sad fact that many large software projects ran over budget or came in late, if at all. Tony Hoare, a recipient of the Turing Award for his contributions to computing, ruefully remembers his experience of a failed software project:

There was no escape: The entire Elliott 503 Mark II software project had to be abandoned, and with it, over thirty man-years of programming effort, equivalent to nearly one man’s active working life, and I was responsible, both as designer and as manager, for wasting it.

In his classic book The Mythical Man-Month, Fred Brooks (B.4.1) of IBM draws on his experience developing the operating system for IBM’s massive System/360 project. Brooks makes some sobering reflections on software engineering, saying, “It is a very humbling experience to make a multimillion-dollar mistake, but it is also very memorable.”