Facebook’s motto, until recently, was “move fast and break things”. This chimed with a wider Silicon Valley brogrammer mentality of “f*ck it, ship it”.

NASA’s approach, as this (long-ish) Fast Company article explains, couldn’t be more different to the Silicon Valley narrative. The author, Charles Fishman, explains that the group who write the software for space shuttles are exceptional at what they do. And they don’t even start writing code until they’ve got a complete plan in place.

This software is the work of 260 women and men based in an anonymous office building across the street from the Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake, Texas, southeast of Houston. They work for the “on-board shuttle group,” a branch of Lockheed Martin Corps space mission systems division, and their prowess is world renowned: the shuttle software group is one of just four outfits in the world to win the coveted Level 5 ranking of the federal governments Software Engineering Institute (SEI) a measure of the sophistication and reliability of the way they do their work. In fact, the SEI based it standards in part from watching the on-board shuttle group do its work.

There’s an obvious impact, both in terms of financial and human cost, if something goes wrong with a shuttle. Imagine if we had these kinds of standards for the impact of social networks on the psychological health of citizens and democratic health of nations!

NASA knows how good the software has to be. Before every flight, Ted Keller, the senior technical manager of the on-board shuttle group, flies to Florida where he signs a document certifying that the software will not endanger the shuttle. If Keller can’t go, a formal line of succession dictates who can sign in his place.

Bill Pate, who’s worked on the space flight software over the last 22 years, [/url]says the group understands the stakes: “If the software isn’t perfect, some of the people we go to meetings with might die.

Software powers everything. It’s in your watch, your television, and your car. Yet the quality of most software is pretty poor.

“It’s like pre-Sumerian civilization,” says Brad Cox, who wrote the software for Steve Jobs NeXT computer and is a professor at George Mason University. “The way we build software is in the hunter-gatherer stage.”

John Munson, a software engineer and professor of computer science at the University of Idaho, is not quite so generous. “Cave art,” he says. “It’s primitive. We supposedly teach computer science. There’s no science here at all.”

The NASA team can sum-up their process in four propositions:

  1. The product is only as good as the plan for the product.
  2. The best teamwork is a healthy rivalry.
  3. The database is the software base.
  4. Don’t just fix the mistakes — fix whatever permitted the mistake in the first place.

They don’t pull all-nighters. They don’t switch to the latest JavaScript library because it’s all over Hacker News. Everything is documented, and genealogy of the whole code is available to everyone working on it.

The most important things the shuttle group does — carefully planning the software in advance, writing no code until the design is complete, making no changes without supporting blueprints, keeping a completely accurate record of the code — are not expensive. The process isn’t even rocket science. Its standard practice in almost every engineering discipline except software engineering.

I’m going to be bearing this in mind as we build MoodleNet. We’ll have to be a bit more agile than NASA, of course. But planning and process is important stuff.


Source: Fast Company