ooPSLA 2007 in Montreal, Canada - Oct. 21 to Oct. 25, 2007
(this is a continuation from my ooPSLA 2007 review part 1)
Embarrassment of the riches
Photo of Fred Books and Bertrand Meyer (inventor of the Eiffel language)
The first thing that one notices from this year's ooPSLA program is that it is chockfull of BIG computer science names, such as, Turing award winners John McCarthy of Stanford and Fred P. Books of University of North Carolina Chapel-Hill (formerly of IBM), as well as David Parnas of University of Limerick, Ireland, Pattie Maes of MIT, and Gregor Kiczales of University of British Columbia (formerly of PARC). With so many famous keynoters, to fit the program in three days, some of the research paper sessions were concurrently scheduled and that created a vacuum at these sessions... Not a huge problem for a well-attended conference but made it difficult for me to attend 'non-famous' sessions.
I managed to see most of the keynotes and only missed Maes's talk---conflicted with yet another invited talk by Brian Foote of Industrial Logic, Inc. (now consulting at Google and other places.) More on Brian's talk in a future post.
Brooks talk was about collaboration and briefly about why the Mythical Man-Month thesis still remains mostly valid today after more than 25 years. I got three main takeaway from his talk: 1) software engineering is hard and still remains intricately a human-intensive process; 2) most important human works typically have one primary designer/architect. Brooks gave examples in all fields, e.g., Michelangelo's Chapel Sixtine, Frank Ghery's Guggenheim museum in Bilboa, Spain (see photo, credit Wikipedia.org), and many others; the one exception to the solo team structure is the pair, e.g., cited pair programming as a successful agile practice; and 3) Brooks thinks that object-oriented technologies are the closest, so far, to the elusive "silver bullet".
McCarthy's keynote centered around a new programming language called Elephant 2000 that he has been working on for a while. Mostly reminded me, and others, of efforts from the multiagent community on speech-act and agent-based programming. The best part of the talk in my opinion was a series of Intro slides on LISP's history that a member of the audience ask him to go over. It's always cool to reminisce on the beginning events that led to the creation of aspects of computer science. For instance, McCarthy mentions how DARPA provided the first funding in the 60's to create CS at MIT as a gift for the war efforts and how, as they do with all such grant, MIT divided the money to each of the major departments. The Math department got this influx of money and needed to spend it. Minsky and McCarthy were lucky to get some for a crazy idea that they called "artificial intelligence" along with a bunch of math graduate students...
Parnas's talk was mainly about documenting software systems and the difficulties that typically arise. Parnas gives as a current illustration of the problem (which may have ended recently) the long running battle between the EU and Microsoft over allowing competitors to interoperate with MS servers by giving enough documentation on Microsoft's protocols. Apparantly the first effort was in the order of 10K pages and was full of inconsistencies and contradictions... Parnas advocates more mathematical verbiage and precision to help this general issue.
Overall, it was nice to see and (in some cases) meet these famous computer scientists. And their general focus on basic research and fundamental principles (gathered empirically or mathematically) is an important reminder to us all. I personally got a chance to speak to both Brooks and Parnas. So kudos to the ooPSLA organizers for inviting them.
However, I cannot help but also point out that both Brooks's and Parnas's talk focused on topics that seems to be a bit at odd with the ooPLSA mostly agile crowd. Brooks was intensely advocating having an architect and a level of 'blueprint' for the system and this could be seen to be a bit at odd with the fact that in the current world, time to market pressures and constant changes in the marketplace make this approach (to its fullest) mostly unrealistic thus the general idea of not doing big-design up front (aka BDUF) in agile teams.
Parnas's documentation rethoric, while clearly needed for a class of software systems, is likely unrealistic in most real-world settings where there is a shortage of programmers (and well educated engineers) and the fact that having working malleable code will get you your contract signed faster or get you ahead of competitors much quicker than one could finish reading the huge amount of of documentation needed to precisely describe even the simplest of systems. Case in point, I was part of the JavaPOS standard and it took a distributed team of more than 20 engineers (from more than 10 companies) greater than 5 years to create a specification (at 3K+ pages) for typical POS devices (i.e., Scanners, magnetic stripe readers, receipt printers, and so on) that could allow application providers to easily have their software working with different hardware vendors by simply changing an XML configuration file.
In the next (and last) post on the ooPSLA 2007 conference, I will continue the braindump of the interesting sessions I attended. This will hopefully include Brian Foote's talk on BIG BALL OF MUD; the workshop on domain-specific modeling/language; some of the Onward! paper sessions; the LINQ tutorial by Eric Meyjer of Microsoft; the Eclipse Jazz presentation by Erich Gamma of IBM Rational; a few of the panels I attended on software engineering, languages, and SOA; and some parting thoughts mingling with many interesting minds and colleagues in the field.