Sunday, May 17, 2009

Feedback on my Research Proposal

Over the last 24 hours I've had the chance to talk to a few individuals about my research idea. It seems to go as follows: I give my 30 second pitch, the marks stares at me blankly. Then, I elaborate. The mark gets it. They tell me first a problem they see, and then what they'd like to see out of the results. In a couple of cases, the mark got particularly excited about the outcome. I've summarized below.

Chris Bird
Chris has a strong background in empirical software engineering, with particular emphasis on qualitative exploratory studies. As such, the quantitative analysis aspects of my pitch fell on deaf ears, but he was extremely interested in the in-lab observation sessions I was proposing. He felt that 5 or 6 actionable recommendations that might come out of observing professionals would be invaluable. He suggested that I find an older Microsoft Research study in which they trained new hires by having them monitor a screen shared by a senior developer for some amount of time (probably a few days), and had the new hire ask questions with the senior at a later date, by reviewing the video logs. I like this idea because it allows us to elicit the information from the developer directly, instead of trying to infer it ourselves, but since we're not bothering them during the initial testing session, we wouldn't be affecting their performance. This isn't without problems, though. Primarily, there is the risk that the subject isn't always sure why they do the things they do, and so are likely to invent reasons, or invent foresight where none necessarily exists. Interesting idea, though. Also, should we interview students in the same way? On one hand, they students likely don't have any special insights that we can leverage (assuming they are less effective at testing than pros). On the other hand, it may illuminate any areas of misconception or misunderstanding which we could address in future curriculum changes.

Jim Cordy
Jim is a professor at Queens, and was my instructor in my 4th year compilers course. After he heard my pitch, he had a warning about an affect he had seen in his industrial work, and it comes from a generational difference in the training of developers. Developers who were trained more than 15 or 20 years ago had a delay between changing the source code and the results of program execution on the order of hours; new developers are used to delays on the order of minutes. Also, the current state of the art in debugging utilizes interactive debuggers, which were either unavailable or unreliable in earlier days. This has lead to 'old-school' programmers to a) rely heavily on source code inspection and b) insert enormous amounts of instrumentation (debugging statements) when running the program becomes required. In comparison, new generation developers often use smaller amounts of instrumentation, relying on quick turn around times to find the cause of errors. In Jim's experience, the old school programmers were orders of magnitude more effective (in terms of bugs found or solved per hour) than younger programmers. If this is in fact the case, it should be an effect we can see if we recruit subjects trained during this era of computer science research.


gvwilson said...

Rory, (this is Chris, not your advisor :) ) I actually have more of a quantitative background than qualitative (something I'm working on). I'm not sure I'd say that your proposal fell on deaf ears, but you have to watch out for confounds and threats to validity. It's almost a foregone conclusion that experienced developers will write more and better tests than students. I think that the real question is why! How do they think about things differently than students. It might be interesting to interview both students and researchers and try to code the differences in how they think about testing. I'd be interested to hear more details about what you would measure and how you would measure the outcomes in your planned qualitative study. I think this is a *great* idea. Too many people ust hypothesize, your going after real results.

steve said...

Rory - Jim's comment is interesting. There's another sorce of "old school": computational scientists working with supercomputers. Eg the climate scientists have to wait week for their results. If Jim's hypothesis is correct, this group ought to be the most effective debuggers of all