David Alan Grier is the 2013 President of the IEEE Computer Society. He has served the society as its Vice President of Publications, Director of Magazines, and Editor in Chief of the IEEE Annals. He writes on the subject of technology and its social implications. His books include: “When Computers Were Human” (Princeton 2005), “Too Soon To Tell” (Wiley 2009), “The Company We Keep” (IEEE Computer Society, 2013), “The Computing Machines of Charles Babbage” (editor, IEEE CS, 2010). He is currently at work on a book on crowdsourcing. He has a PhD in Mathematical Statistics from the University of Washington in Seattle, and is an associate professor of Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University. He has served as Associate Dean or Program Director in schools of international affairs, engineering and liberal arts. He has also worked in industry, serving as a software designer for Burroughs Computer Corporation in the 1980s. He lives in Washington, DC.
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Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
Can you detail your prior roles and shareable lessons you learned?
“….Working with the people who are researching, writing, trying to apply ideas and figure out what the best practice is, I’ve learned that you need to trust them and be patient with them. But at the same time (at least a little), provide feedback that gives another point of view that might be useful and can often bring focus to a problem, article or an implementation that someone is working on, and help them see it in a new light and all of a sudden start to find a better solution for it….”
Can you briefly outline who are the IEEE CS? What are the top challenges in your role as 2013 IEEE CS President?
“….IEEE is the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers — it’s the biggest professional organization for people involved in electric and electronic equipment in the world, and is made of a variety of people, from PhD researchers to technicians who work on this equipment and develop it….The first challenge is identifying the information they need and getting it to them….Education for technical professionals also involves other things and one of them is the ethical side of it….The challenge of presenting this field to the public where it’s very easy to stereotype them….”
What are the top challenges facing the ICT industry?
“….Right people in the right place selling the right job….The second challenge related to the first is bringing new ideas to market….Getting capital to the right business….Context, that in the ICT industry we have for 65 years lived in a world where things changed very fast and yet we look at ourselves in a very narrow neighbourhood….In applying knowledge and taking things into account that which doesn’t seem obvious and involves listening for a context or framework that may not be seen by the people there….”
What are the top opportunities for the ICT industry?
“….The improvement and development and usage of human capital….Spreading wealth globally, helping countries develop their ideas, human and physical resources and do so in a way that’s balanced, stable and transparent….Computing ICT technology is a coordinated technology, it allows people to work together in ways they couldn’t before….The other opportunities are things that we have been working on for 65 years, the organization and structuring of knowledge in a way that makes it easier for people to use…..The last opportunity is the sense of efficiency that ICT offers when you have computing systems….”
Do you see any domains having the highest growth rates out of all the specialties that are out there?
“….Big Data….which involves using computing technology to work your way through the data and find interesting answers that are not discoverable by traditional statistical methods….Smart Technology, particularly in the use of Market Mechanisms….We are seeing a big growth in what we call Life Sciences in computing….Cloud Computing….Cyber-security and the protection of computing systems….”
What policies need to be implemented to foster innovation?
“….Making sure that we have the intellectual property policies right….Getting all the skills together in one place: business, insight, managerial, technical and marketing skills — all of these things are crucial….”
In the US and internationally what’s happening with respect to certification/licensing of software engineers?
“….We have reached a high end that software is so pervasive that we will see first Professional Engineering degrees largely for the financial markets, and then lower level professional certificates through people like the Computer Society that help individuals demonstrate their skills so that they can move to projects where they are needed with the skills that they have and can demonstrate….”
Can you give a global perspective on what countries have the highest demands for these kinds of certifications?
“….We have deployed 4 major certifiers in India primarily to meet the growing need, because so much development is starting to go on there and they need people who can say not only did I work on this project, but also I have demonstrated the skills in a certified, organized way. China is clearly the next market for that but we see all of Southeast Asia as quite important….Since so many of the organizations are based in the United States we see the high end as still being very important here….”
You mentioned Texas and you also mentioned California and New York, what States in the US are on this road to the PE degree certification and I would say licensing?
“….Texas is the leader in the United States right now and we see over the next five years the major States following: California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota….We suspect that some of the smaller States that are trying to attract this industry may take a lead in trying to certify professionals as a way of trying to get more investment in the area as well….”
What are the risks for software engineers with respect to the software they have developed?
“….It’s the age old issue: you try to avoid malfunction, but if you get yourself in a malfunction how do you bring the system down quickly and gracefully without damaging infrastructure, and certainly without threatening the life and health of individuals….”
David talks about the liabilities for software engineers for the software they have developed.
“….The liabilities when you are lead developer, you at some level have to take responsibility and increasingly we are seeing that the senior engineers have to take personal responsibility, that they have to have personal insurance on it and that insurance requires then to demonstrate their skills just as it does in any engineering profession whether it be a structural engineer or an electrical engineer….”
What are the personal responsibilities to be taken by professionals?
“….When we talk about the responsibilities of the professionals the responsibility is to use the profession, to use best practices, to understand it, and to know how to use it to get the best result and best protect the public….”
How do the different jurisdictions, countries or states have different liability regimes?
“….The different ways that they look at regimes is really where they put the locus of risk. Who is taking the risk of software development? Right now in most Western societies, the locus of risk is at the point of investment — it’s the organization that funds it and anticipates getting a return on it….For the most part globally it starts at the corporate investment level, they’re the ones who are financially responsible and they push it down….”
What kinds of thresholds need to be crossed before liability/responsibility is incurred? Is it at the scale of undertaking, is it based on the status of the professional based on academic, professional qualification, registration, membership in a professional society?
“…I think first and foremost it has to do with the scale of the undertaking in particular, it has to do with scale of risk….The key threshold is the potential of damage, the potential of something going wrong…..”
Is liability mitigated by adherence to “best practice”? David talks about: How much can “best practice” be codified? What different kinds of Software Engineering/Software Development have different kinds of “best practice”? What kinds of liabilities are civil versus criminal in nature and upon which party in either case lies the burden of proof? What social processes can be established to learn from SE/SD failures to emphasize learning from mistakes?
“….I think it really gets to the issue ‘What does it really mean to be a professional?’….Software Engineering and Software Development have very similar forms of what best practices are and yet we might be able to split a difference between them and find different sorts of things….”
David talks about the risks/liabilities of the software developed considering the following items: Whether contracts for commercial or open source development should be specific about product liability? IP/copyright issues? Independent contractors’ use of systems such as Professional Standards Schemes to cap liability? Testing protocols to minimize the risks of rogue developers and the benefits from using appropriate methodologies e.g. agile, scrum.
“….The risks are not just systems going astray, they are IP risks where you use something that you think is in the public domain and it is not, and you are stuck with it and you have done something inadvertently. To me the first set of risks are the risks of doing damage and the risks of harming….”
What are the general issues in the following five areas?
- Definitions of software engineering and software development (usually, software engineers would be or have responsibility for software development/ers)?
- Off-sourcing software development and contract management; out of jurisdiction of organization’s headquarters. What are the human resources and legal issues?
- International languages of programming and breaking down barriers across culture; ease of mobility for individuals globally?
- Up-skilling of new developers and maintaining existing (ageing) workforce to maintain legacy systems?
- Rules of engagement in open source development; things like payment, accountability, reliability and changing business models regarding how software is commercialized?
“….Software engineering is indeed a term of art whereas software development (it is a sort of subset of it), is not as well defined….The off-sourcing software issues are really global labour issues and global contract issues and they really need to be handled by legal professionals in the field….The international languages of programming is an intriguing issue….When you start to look ahead we are really starting to think ‘Are there standard languages that we need to codify?’….The up-scaling of developers, this goes back to what I argued earlier that the human resources of development and engineering are a key issue. How do you transform the human resources, your staff and workers in ways that keep them up-to-date and keep them valuable….Rules of engagement in Open Source development. It has a way of conglomerating the ideas, skills and knowledge into a single place and allowing that community to use it at reduced costs, and allowing people to take skills that they cannot widely use and use it in a specific problem for the benefit of a large group….”
What are your comments on these issues in software engineering: first, from the career development standpoint; the scarcity of Masters programs, and secondly the lack of specific professional development?
“….We’ve made strong advances in that in India and are working on the same issues in China, and I suspect 5 years from now we will be able to show the world advanced education, continuing education and in career development that’s quite different from the one we have today….”
How is the certification marketplace evolving in two and five years?
“….I think within 2 years we will see a good strong footprint in India and in some other parts of South Asia and Southeast Asia. I think in 5 years we will start seeing it really be global and that people will be able to move across the cultural and country barriers with certifications that are recognized around the world….”
Our audience of ICT professionals is bombarded with so much information out there and a lot of it is spam or noise. What are the top resources that you use?
“….I have a number of blogs that I follow. I look at a number of the big commercial sites such as IDG sites and Wired and things like that. I’m obviously part of the Computer Society and I pay close attention to what we produce and what IEEE produces….You really need to look across the board and use your judgment in reconciling and unifying these….”
What are some of the top disruptive technologies or disruptive ideas coming up and how will they have impact?
“….The sensors, the use of data and large data, the use of crowds and human data to help shape our world, I think these are going to have substantial impact and substantial disruptive impact over the next 5 to 7 years….”
Describe some areas of controversy in the areas that you work.
“….How do human beings fit into global computing systems, is it exploitation?….I think there’s also the issue of privacy….Obviously this technology redistributes wealth and is it doing so in a way that values the contributions of all?…”
There are global, national and regional Associations. What is the value for computing professionals to belong to a professional association?
“….I think the value for the individual is that it increases your ability to have impact by giving you access to more and more knowledge, but also because it gives you access to a community that supports you and helps you understand what is the right way to behave, to work and the right way to present ideas, the best practices and that is the value I see. The biggest value is at the global level since with all this technology we are creating a global community….”
Do you feel computing should be a recognized profession on par with accounting, medicine and law with demonstrated professional development, adherence to a code of ethics, personal responsibility, public accountability, quality assurance and recognized credentials? [See http://www.ipthree.org and the Global Industry Council, http://www.ipthree.org/about-ip3/global-advisory-council]
“….I do, but I would stretch out those different fields — it’s probably closest to accounting….Computing, computer software and engineering, and software development to me have the closest parallel with accounting, but accountants have that issue of risk that they bear as well because if they misunderstand how the organization is accounting for its resources, they are vulnerable as we have seen in the case of Enron and some of the cases that came out in 2008 on Wall Street. They need to have the protection of best practices and continued educational training and software professionals need that as well….”
David shares some interesting and amazing stories from his extensive speaking, travels and work.
“….That image of them standing around a computer listening to it play Silent Night, singing along with it knowing that they were on the edge for their jobs, but that they would willingly spend 2 weeks to make this program work right because it taught them something, and it allowed them to shape their world, that computer room and that machine in a way that interested them to me speaks very deeply and very personally of the affection and hope people have had in this technology….”
If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
“….What were your favourite books on computing and computation….What is one way that you can advance most quickly?….Where is this field going, what’s happening?….”
David, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.
Music by Sunny Smith Productions and Shaun O’Leary