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Programming Science

'The Code Has Already Been Written' 253

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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  • by digitrev ( 989335 ) <> on Sunday July 24, 2011 @03:11PM (#36864600) Homepage
    I work with Monte Carlo code and statistical analysis software. I use CERN's ROOT package for the stats analysis, CERN's GEANT4 for the MC code, and *nix scripting when I need to handle multiple files. Every single piece of code I write is written for a purpose. That purpose is generally to generate data and then analyze it. The only other people who are going to see it? Maybe my supervisor, and, if I'm just in on a contract, maybe the guy who has to work on my code later. But to be blunt, that doesn't matter. All that matters is that I know what's going on.

    That being said, sometimes I write software for my own personal use. There, I tend to write more robust code, trying to follow various programming standards. Because I figure, if I write something for myself that turns out to be fairly useful, someone might want to use it, or adapt it. But professionally, all my code needs to do is get out that table or prepare that figure. Is it sloppy? Yes. Does it get the job done? Also yes. Fortunately, not only is my field esoteric, it's also government work, so it's practically a guarantee that my code will never have commercial release.
  • Re:This is so true (Score:4, Interesting)

    by tnk1 ( 899206 ) on Sunday July 24, 2011 @04:17PM (#36865034)

    We're discussing the ability to commercialize that software, not to simply use it.

    Yes, it works. It may even work quite well. It's another thing to be able to use it outside the original group that created it and another thing entirely to turn it into something that can be used by someone who wants to use the functionality for a completely different task.

    I've written code that is for a task that I need to get done for myself. This means I can use any arcane method of entering data that I feel like in any format I feel like. If I know exactly what I will be entering and in what format I will enter it, I don't need to do data validation steps in the code. If I know that it won't hurt something to just control-C out of the script, I won't bother creating a "Quit/Exit" functionality. All those things are not needed if you know your code and what it can and it cannot do. The problem is that if you want to commercialize it, you will be selling it to people who do not know what it can do.

    And yes, NASA can write code that can have commercial applications. Of course, perhaps not for the "consumer" that you are thinking of, but businesses and even other research groups can be consumers of a product. They are going to be made up of people who are not going to want to spend their time learning your arcane methods of doing things to make the program work for them. They will want an interface that can allow them to make use of the powerful capabilities of your software without having to either write it themselves or spend a huge amount of time learning it and its quirks.

    FORTRAN is great, and I have used it myself for things. I think perhaps that it is off-base to have used that as a slur against these programs. However, FORTRAN is a bit of a niche skill in this day and age. You're not going to be able to leverage the great majority of coder resources today if you insist on using it for the code base, and it will make some things more difficult to manage, like perhaps not a slick GUI, but something that is functional and makes the software easier to learn and work with.

  • I concur (Score:5, Interesting)

    by goombah99 ( 560566 ) on Sunday July 24, 2011 @04:46PM (#36865266)

    I always like the Numerical recipes quote: Scientists solve next years problem on last years computer. Computer programmers solve last years problem on next years computer.

    I've lived on both sides of this divide but mainly on the scientific side. I become apoplectic with software engineers who just don't vest themselves in the science. The perpetually want a set of requirements. And they get upset if a new requirement is added later. I see software as a way to explore a space. Model it. Determine what more modeling is needed. You are constantly trying to do something that usually is beyond what is computationally possible so you have to figure out what approximation is going to work. What has to be done at full scale and what can be done at lower resolution. Mock up stuff.

    The engineers who don't see it as a process just are impediments. Scientists want lots of simple things fast then see what is working and add new simple extensions. They don't want to wait 4 months for some delivered code based on specs it took 2 months to write.

    Hence scientist tend to write their own code.

  • Re:This is so true (Score:5, Interesting)

    by turbidostato ( 878842 ) on Sunday July 24, 2011 @07:07PM (#36866294)

    "I'm working on commercializing NASA software and this couldn't be more true."

    I don't think is just NASA. Wasn't an IBM engineer the one that said: X time for a valid prototype; 10*X for an in-house product; 100*X for a commercial packaged application?

    Given that what a scientist does for her calculations is in the "valid prototype" stage (why the hell would she be interested in anything else?) you can do the math about how much it will cost to put it on a shelf, so to say.

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." -- Howard Aiken