Programmers, Managers, and Defense Dollars: The Contrary Networking of "Software Engineering"



Eric Roberts,

Date and Time

October 15, 2009 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM


Open to the public.

No RSVP required


CISAC Conference Room

FSI Contact

A. Nancy Contreras

"I think that, by and large, the managers wouldn't know a good technique if it hit them in the face." The prominent computer scientist Alan Perlis spoke these words at a second NATO-sponsored Software Engineering conference in 1969. He underscored a conflict that would persist in the decade that followed that ill-tempered meeting, as computer professionals organized in the name of "software engineering," many sponsored by the U.S. defense department. Yet software cost overruns are frequent, and glitches occasionally turn deadly, leading many to argue that "software engineering" is not yet worthy of the name.
How should we understand the emergence of software engineering: the agendas of its proponents, sources of controversy, and its relationship to diverse defense department interests, including security, reliability, and timeliness, and costs? This chapter-in-progress addresses this question using both qualitative historical materials and social network data. The Defense Department's interest in software research was nurtured by budgetary cuts that followed anti-war protests in the early 1970, making economics a dominant, if controversial theme in "software engineering" research. Debates about the meaning and direction of software engineering often invoked binary divisions, between managers and technical people, industrialists and academics, pragmatists and theoreticians. After describing these debates from the ground up, I use network analysis to provide bird's eye view: to what extent were commonly evoked dualisms reflected in practices of publication, and how did this change as the field became institutionalized? More broadly, can network analysis contribute meaningfully to a historical account employing "thick description," and if so how?

Rebecca Slayton is a lecturer in the Science, Technology and Society Program at Stanford University and a CISAC affiliate. In 2004-2005 she was a CISAC science fellow. Her research examines how technical judgments are generated, taken up, and given significance in international security contexts. She is currently working on a book which uses the history of the U.S. ballistic missile defense program to study the relationships between and among technology, expertise, and the media. Portions of this work have been published in journals such as History and Technology and have been presented at academic conferences. As a postdoctoral fellow in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 2004 she completed an NSF-funded project entitled Public Science: Discourse about the Strategic Defense Initiative, 1983-1988.

As a physical chemist, she developed ultrafast laser experiments in condensed matter systems and published several articles in physics journals. She also received the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship in 2000, and has worked as a science journalist for a daily paper and for Physical Review Focus. She earned her doctorate in chemistry from Harvard University in 2002.

Eric Roberts, after receiving his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from Harvard University in 1980, taught at Wellesley College from 1980-85, where he chaired the Computer Science Department. From 1985-90, he was a member of the research staff at Digital Equipment Corporation’s Systems Research Center in Palo Alto, California, where he conducted computer science research, focusing on programming tools for multiprocessor architectures. In September 1990, Roberts joined the Stanford faculty, where he is now Professor of Computer Science and the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn University Fellow in Undergraduate Education.

From 1990 to 2002, Professor Roberts was Associate Chair and Director of Undergraduate Studies for Computer Science. In that capacity, he was the principal architect of Stanford’s introductory programming sequence, which for many years held the distinction of being the largest course at Stanford. He has also written four computer science textbooks that are used at many colleges and universities throughout the world. His research focuses on computer science education, particularly for underserved communities. From 1998 to 2005, Roberts was Principal Investigator for the Bermuda Project, which developed the computer science curriculum for Bermuda’s public secondary schools.