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Programming Science

'The Code Has Already Been Written' 253

Posted by timothy
from the is-that-how-you-see-things dept.
theodp writes "John D. Cook points out there's a major divide between the way scientists and programmers view the software they write. Scientists see their software as a kind of exoskeleton, an extension of themselves. Programmers, on the other hand, see their software as something they will hand over to someone else, more like building a robot. To a scientist, the software soup's done when they get what they want out of it, while professional programmers give more thought to reproducibility, maintainability, and correctness. So what happens when the twain meet? 'The real tension,' says Cook, 'comes when a piece of research software is suddenly expected to be ready for production. The scientist will say 'the code has already been written' and can't imagine it would take much work, if any, to prepare the software for its new responsibilities. They don't understand how hard it is for an engineer to turn an exoskeleton into a self-sufficient robot.'"
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'The Code Has Already Been Written'

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  • This is so true (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 24, 2011 @02:56PM (#36864510)

    I'm working on commercializing NASA software and this couldn't be more true. When talking to the inventor they inevitably say "Oh yea the software is done, anyone can write code for this, should be easy to sell." even if it's coded in Fortran,, has no Gui or documentation of any sort. It definitely is functional but hardly has any of the features consumers demand.

  • Re:I expected more (Score:5, Informative)

    by gmueckl (950314) on Sunday July 24, 2011 @03:43PM (#36864804)

    Exactly this! It is not about the education of the people writing the code. It's about the purpose for which it is written. I've done it all.

    As a scientist most software that I write is geared to solving the problem at hand, nothing more. Sometimes this can be 10.000 lines of C++ code, at other times a short python script or 10. Each time, the code serves as a sort of automation for something that needs to be done anyway (I could attempt to compute the simulation result myself, by hand on pen and paper, you know... if I don't die of old age first ;) ). Often, not a single thought goes into how to make this stuff reusable, robust or more generic. It works on the one machine it is ever going to run on and very likely nowhere else, because it does not matter. What matters is the program output, not the program itself.

    As a software developer I have to think differently. Software gets compiled, packaged and deployed elsewhere. It must run out of the box, never crash, give useful error message and recover cleanly if something bad happened. And amidst all this effort, there's a tiny bit of code hidden somewhere doing the actual work. All that matters is that the program behaves correctly, no matter what the concrete output is. I might not even be expected to understand what the output actually means - it's not my primary concern.

    See the difference?

  • Re:I expected more (Score:5, Informative)

    by 16384 (21672) on Sunday July 24, 2011 @03:50PM (#36864840)
    The bulk of scientific research is done by grad students (or others like them with various kinds of scholarships). The professors whose name is at the end of paper's author list guide and oversee what is done, but don't have time for the daily grind of research. Their main job is to teach and get funding.
  • Re:I expected more (Score:4, Informative)

    by calmofthestorm (1344385) on Sunday July 24, 2011 @05:06PM (#36865412)

    PhD students at tier 1 and 2 research universities are basically bottom-rung scientists-in-training (sometimes with UGs below them). For our first year or two we'll take a class or two a term, but the bulk of our time is spent doing research, writing and reading scientific papers, and presenting at conferences. For the last 3-4 years we typically take no classes and spend all our time doing research and teaching. We're professionals who make $20-$30k/yr depending on the location, plus full benefits and tuition waivers for any classes we do take. Expectations of workload are typically higher than entry level positions in industry (50-80 hours/wk, depending on the field and PI), and pay is obviously worse. The postdocs and professors do do some of the research themselves (especially when younger), but for the most part their time is spent directing the general direction of the research and applying for grants to fund it, doing the work (for free) to review and organize journals, and of course teaching. Most of us are aware we won't be going on in academia after the PhD, and I at least am okay with that.

    It's nothing like a masters or a undergraduate degree at all. We really aren't students in any meaningful sense of the word given the modern sense of college, aside from the fact that we'll get a degree in time. In Europe there are post-graduate degrees awarded after the PhD, so I guess you could call their postdocs "students" as well.

    It's completely different outside STEM, however, with PhD students typically earning little to nothing and sometimes having to pay tuition.

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