Computer Science and Software Engineers

Joel Spolsky published yet another complaint about what they teach people to get a Computer Science degree. I think he is right in complaining that no university is producing the kind of programmers he wants, but he’s missing one point.

In Argentina there are two different careers related to programming: Computer Science, and Software Engineering. Computer Science, like its counterpart in USA produces scientist. Scientist are people not very much concerned about what’s practical or useful, but by advancing knowledge.

You don’t expect physicists (scientists) to build a bridge. Although they may understand all the forces at play, they don’t have the practical training. You have civil engineers that know how to build a bridge. Civil engineers, on the other hands, don’t play with subatomic particles, the beginning of the universe and black holes. They generally don’t advance knowledge, they build practical things

In the same vein, one should expect nothing else of a Computer Scientist than to use Haskell, push the advance of  type inference, experiment with artificial intelligence, dream of computers with a teracores (that is 1012 cores) and know nothing about deploying servers, Microsoft tools, etc. And you do expect a Software Engineering to know how to use Java, C#, Python or other current languages and never touch Haskell. They should also be able to organize themselves using agile or whatever to produce working practical products.

The Computer Science and Software Engineering careers in Argentina more or less reflect that. It’s not a clear cut but in CS you can find lessons in Artificial Intelligence while on Software Engineering you even find some lessons about laws. Not sure what they are about, but a Software Engineer does require some basic knowledge of licensing.

I thin Joel Spolsky and many others are right about complaining that universities don’t produce software engineers, but I think he is wrong about expecting them out of Computer Science departments. It would be very sad if Computer Science turns into Software Engineering and there’s nobody to dream of type inference and teracores.

What Joel Spolsky doesn't understand about Linux

Once again I hear Joel Spolsky saying the same thing about Linux that I consider wrong. I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking that and I’m sure I’m not the only one writing about it, but I’m going to do it anyway. Joel’s position is that administrating Linux must be harder because something like 70% of the support calls they handle for FogBugz come from Linux while it is less than 30% of its market.

I’d agree that for someone that doesn’t know anything about administrating, getting a Windows server running is easier than getting a Linux server running. I think that being an expert in both environments is equally hard. The sysadmin problems are hard and there are no shortcuts.

But Joel Spolsky point is wrong in one regard: Linux is not an operating system. I’ve said it before and I’ve got many negative comments, mails, messages about it but very few actually got my point. This is an instance where Linux being taken for an operating system is causing someone pain and thus causing that someone to say something that is not completely right.

Joel makes FogBugz for Windows and Linux. Does that mean that I can run it on my Windows CE phone? It is a Windows, isn’t it? It says Windows in the name! It has a start button! Well, of course I can’t run FogBugz on it. They ship it for Windows the PC operating system. Does it work on ReactOS then? In a sense it is a Windows PC operating system; an alternative implementation of one with all the same interfaces and libraries. Well, of course not. It work only in the Windows PC operating system produced by Microsoft. For example, Windows 7 Starter Edition, yes, that one that allows you to run only three apps at the time. Well, no!

All those things I mentioned are in a sense Windowses as well, yet they are not supported and probably FogBugz doesn’t work on them. Yet, he says he supports Linux. Saying you support Linux is like saying that you supports computers that have RAM. It’s too broad. Trying to ship something that should run on almost everything won’t work. Be it Linux or anything else.

Linux is only a kernel. It’s a kernel used by many different operating systems. Some of them radically different (like Android or Chrome OS). If you are a company and make a product supporting it on Linux is crazy. What should Joel do then?

He should support operating systems, not kernels. What operating systems should Joel support? I don’t know, whatever is popular. I’d guess Red Hat’s RHEL, Ubuntu, Debian are probably popular operating systems. Once you start supporting operating systems instead of kernels the world looks differently. You don’t have to deliver a tar.gz (a compressed archive) that should compile and run everywhere. It’s insane to ship that and it’s insane to expect users to be able to install them. I administer various Debian and Ubuntu servers and workstations. Do you know how often I compile source code that I haven’t written myself? Never!

When you support an operating system like Ubuntu or Debian you can ship binaries. You build binaries in the form of debs or rpms. And you don’t build only one of them, you probably need one deb for Ubuntu, one deb for Debian and maybe even one deb for each version of Ubuntu if they vary enough. If you think this is a lot of work, then look at how much work is building a Windows installer that can work in any Windows from XP pre-SP1 without .Net to Windows 7. If it was trivial there wouldn’t be companies like InstallShield making money.

I’ve heard FogBugz comes with its own copy of MySQL and Apache. How Windowish! That’s crazy and meant to break. You don’t copy code, programs or libraries in the world of Linux-based operating systems. You set dependencies. You make a fogbugz.deb that depends on Apache and depends on MySQL and when fogbugz.deb is installed it will automatically install Apache and MySQL. It will install an Apache built, optimized and customized for that version of Apache that follows the Ubuntu guidelines for storing caches, config files, etc.

There’s more, since there are some pretty straighfoward guidelines where everything is installed, fogbugz.deb could work out of the box. In an Ubuntu box I can run

aptitude install phpmyadmin

and it works out of the box. And phpMyAdmin depends on Apache and MySQL. Of course I could break those services so that nothing works, but most people don’t. What the phpmyadmin package does is drop files in certain locations where Apache is going to pick them up. Apache as many other programs don’t have just one configuration files but directories of them, so you can drop another configuration file and it’s picked up.

I am very certain that if FogBugz was packaged in this fashion, then it would not generate as many phone calls as it does now. It is packaged and distributed like software in 1995 for Linux-based operating systems, when almost everything was a mess and chaotic and there were very few people putting it in production.

To close this post let me tell you something else to convince you that Linux is not an operating system. You can write a program for Linux, but then it runs just fine in OpenBSD. And then you find out that it also runs just fine in Solaris. Well, but you wrote it on a Debian box, which is Linux. Did you know that there’s a Debian kFreeBSD (or something like that)? which is Debian running the FreeBSD kernel. Debian kFreeBSD is more similar to Debian than to FreeBSD. Nexenta is Ubuntu with the Solaris kernel, and it’s more similar to Ubuntu than to Solaris. Android is Linux, yet almost none of the software that runs on Debian, FreeBSD, Nexenta, Solaris runs on Android.

You see, Linux is just one component, and not even the biggest component, of an operating system. It is not the component users interact with when using a computer and it is not even the component programmers interact most of the time, when writing a program. It makes almost no sense to say “I make this program for Linux”.