Empirical Software Engineering Vignettes

I have been arguing for years that we should replace the standard undergraduate course on software engineering with one that:

  1. shows students how to gather and analyze data about programs, programmers, and programming, and then

  2. has them recapitulate key findings from empirical software engineering research.

The vignette below is an example of what I mean. It introduces several important ideas and would naturally lead into in-class analysis of how quickly the students themselves could complete some small tasks, how big and how correct their solutions were, and so on. A re-analysis of Fucci et al’s data on test-driven development or a repeat of Ragkhitwetsagul et al’s study of toxic code snippets on Stack Overflow would be just as much fun, and would helps students learn about code analysis tools and practical data science as well as teaching them what we actually know about software engineering and why we believe it’s true.

I think it would take one year to build this course, test it in the classroom, and get it into production. I’m pessimistic about update—my current job has reminded me just how slowly academia curricula change—but as my spouse keeps reminding me, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. If you know someone who would back this project, I’d be grateful for an introduction.

Are some programmers really ten times more productive than average? To find out, Prechelt2000 had a set of programmers solve the same problem in the language of their choice, then looked at how long it took them, how good their solutions were, and how fast those solutions ran. The data, which is available online, looks like this:


The columns hold the following information:

Column Meaning
person subject identifier
lang programming language used
z1000t running time for z1000 input file
z0t running time for z0 input file
z1000mem memory consumption at end of z1000 run
stmtL program length in statement lines of code
z1000rel output reliability for z1000 input file
m1000rel output reliability for m1000 input file
whours total subject work time
caps subject self-evaluation

The z1000rel and m1000rel columns tell us that all of these implementations are correct 98% of the time or better, which is considered acceptable. The rest of the data is much easier to understand as a box-and-whisker plot of the working time in hours (the whours column from the table). Each dot is a single data point jittered up or down a bit to be easier to see). The left and right boundaries of the box show the 25th and 75th percentiles respectively, i.e., 25% of the points lie below the box and 25% lie above it, and the mark in the middle shows the median:

Box-and-whisker plot show that most developers spent between zero and 20 hours but a few took as long as 63 hours.
Development Time

So what does this data tell us about productivity? As Prechelt2019 explains, that depends on exactly what we mean. The shortest and longest development times were 0.6 and 63 hours respectively, giving a ratio of 105X. However, the subjects used seven different languages; if we only look at those who used Java (about 30% of the whole) the shortest and longest times are 3.8 and 63 hours, giving a ratio of “only” 17X.

But comparing the best and the worst of anything is guaranteed to give us an exaggerated impression of the difference. If we compare the 75th percentile (which is the middle of the top half of the data) to the 25th percentile (which is the middle of the bottom half) we get a ratio of 18.5/7.25 or 2.55; if we compare the 90th percentile to the 50th we get 3.7, and other comparisons give us other values. The answers to our original question are therefore:

  1. It depends what you mean.

  2. No, good programmers aren’t 10 times more productive than average.

  3. But yes, it’s reasonable to say that they are about four times more productive.

Lutz Prechelt: "An empirical comparison of seven programming languages". IEEE Computer, 2000, doi:10.1109/2.876288.
Lutz Prechelt: "The mythical 10x programmer". In Sadowski and Zimmermann (eds.) Rethinking Productivity in Software Engineering, 2019.