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December 2, 2009

Speaker: Dr. Gregory V. Wilson, Department of Computer Science, University of Toronto

Title: What we actually know about software development, and why we believe it's true

Abstract: By the time the Seven Years War ended in 1763, Britain had lost 1512 sailors in action, but almost 100,000 to scurvy-despite the fact that the Scottish surgeon James Lind had shown twenty years earlier that a little lemon juice every day was enough to prevent or cure the dreaded ailment. It was more than a century before medical practitioners began paying attention to controlled trials of this kind: as recently as the 1950s, many doctors rejected statistical results linking smoking to cancer, saying that what happened "on average" was of no help when they were faced with a specific patient. Today, though, most practitioners accepted that decisions about the care of individual patients should be based on conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence. The idea that claims about software development practices should be based on evidence is still foreign to software developers, who often talk as if a beer and an anecdote constituted proof. This is finally starting to change: any academic who claims that a particular tool or practice makes software development faster, cheaper, or more reliable is now expected to back up that claim with some sort of empirical study. Such studies are difficult to do well, but hundreds have now been published covering almost every aspect of software development. This talk will look at some of the best of those studies, which are as elegant as classic experiments in physics, psychology, and other scientific disciplines.

Disciplines: Computing, Mathematics