It's Not Theory vs. Practice, It's Two Solitudes

In Canada, the phrase “two solitudes” refers to the lack of communication—and the lack of interest in communicating—between Anglophones and Francophones. I think of that phrase every time someone uses the phrase “theory versus practice” when talking about academia and industry. Having worked in both, I don’t think that’s the real dividing line: lots of academics actually do build things (look at Berkeley DB and SnowFlock), and the people writing optimizing compilers for IBM, or doing machine learning for Google, are as lost in the theoretical stratosphere as anyone. Instead, I think of industry and academia as two branches of an extended family that send each other Christmas cards, and occasionally show up for each other’s weddings or funerals, but aren’t in day-to-day or even year-to-year contact [1].

I think this divide is unhealthy, and while I failed to to bridge it personally, I’m hoping that the two books I’ve worked on in the past year will encourage others to do so. The second one to come out, The Architecture of Open Source Applications, has been getting some attention among practitioners since its launch this week. It’s too early to tell if academics will pay attention to it [2], but I’m hoping that someone at IEEE Software or Communications of the ACM will think it’s worth bringing to the attention of their audience [3].

The first of the two, Making Software, didn’t draw nearly as much attention (i.e., it wasn’t Slashdotted), but I think it’s a natural and necessary complement to AOSA. MS is a summary of what we actually know about how software is developed: what studies have been done, what they found, what conclusions we can draw from them, and why anyone should believe any of it. If AOSA is “what practitioners have built”, MS is “what researchers know”; my aim in doing both back to back was to give each of those two communities something they could give the other, something that would give them an excuse to sit down together and catch up with how Aunt Yena’s sciatica is doing and oh, isn’t little Zuffi just the cutest baby you ever saw?

In my dreams, what happens next is that people use these books as an opportunity to reach out to one another. I’m still digesting notes from yesterday’s ICSE panel session on “What Industry Wants From Research” [4], but it’s clear that a lot of researchers would love to talk practitioners about what problems really matter, and what would count as answers. At the same time, I think researchers could get some useful reality checks, and maybe even some redirection, by looking at what practitioners choose to describe when asked to describe the most important features of their applications.

As a first step, if you’re in academia, think about going to OSCON or Agile this year, telling the people there what you do, and listening to what they talk about when they talk about the things that they think are important. If you’re not an academic, but planning to go to either of those conferences, why not call up one of your old professors and invite them to join you? Or flip through Making Software and ask the author(s) of one of the chapters you find interesting to try it out. If nothing else, you’ll get a great t-shirt out of it…

[1] And yes, most people who get an undergraduate degree in CS do go out into industry, but for most of them, it’s a one-way trip, and very little of what they do or learn ever filters back to campus. To continue my analogy, they’re the young ‘uns that leave the old country to go work for Uncle Willi in Chicago, but stop writing home after mummi and vati pass away.

[2] I’m still baffled that there isn’t a “news for software engineering researchers” blog along the lines of Lambda the Ultimate to help people stay up to date with things like this. If I had more energy, I’d start one; if you have more energy than me, please do so.

[3] What I’d really like, of course, is for people to start using it as a textbook in advanced undergraduate software courses, but since those courses mostly don’t exist, that’s probably a vain hope…

[4] See Jorge Aranda’s post for a thoughtful summary of the answers that he, Daniela Damian, Marian Petre, and Peggy Storey uncovered before the panel session by interviewing industry practitioners.

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