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The Software Engineering Process

The elements of a software engineering process are generally enumerated as:

No element of this process ought to commence before the earlier ones are substantially complete, and whenever a change is made to some element, all dependent elements ought to be reviewed or redone in light of that change. It's possible that a given module will be both specified and implemented before its dependent modules are fully specified -- this is called advanced development or research. It is absolutely essential that every element of the software engineering process include several kinds of review: peer review, mentor/management review, and cross-disciplinary review. Software engineering elements (whether documents or source code) must have version numbers and auditable histories. ``Checking in'' a change to an element should require some form of review, and the depth of the review should correspond directly to the scope of the change.

Marketing Requirements

The first step of a software engineering process is to create a document which describes the target customers and their reason for needing this product, and then goes on to list the features of the product which address these customer needs. The Marketing Requirements Document (MRD) is the battleground where the answer to the question ``What should we build, and who will use it?'' is decided. In many failed projects, the MRD was handed down like an inscribed stone tablet from marketing to engineering, who would then gripe endlessly about the laws of physics and about how they couldn't actually build that product since they had no ready supply of Kryptonite or whatever. The MRD is a joint effort, with engineering not only reviewing but also writing a lot of the text.

System-Level Design

This is a high-level description of the product, in terms of ``modules'' (or sometimes ``programs'') and of the interaction between these modules. The goals of this document are first, to gain more confidence that the product could work and could be built, and second, to form a basis for estimating the total amount of work it will take to build it. The system-level design document should also outline the system-level testing plan, in terms of customer needs and whether they would be met by the system design being proposed.

Detailed Design

The detailed design is where every module called out in the system-level design document is described in detail. The interface (command line formats, calling API, externally visible data structures) of each module has to be completely determined at this point, as well as dependencies between modules. Two things that will evolve out of the detailed design is a PERT or GANT chart showing what work has to be done and in what order, and more accurate estimates of the time it will take to complete each module. Every module needs a unit test plan, which tells the implementor what test cases or what kind of test cases they need to generate in their unit testing in order to verify functionality. Note that there are additional, nonfunctional unit tests which will be discussed later.


Every module described in the detailed design document has to be implemented. This includes the small act of coding or programming that is the heart and soul of the software engineering process. It's unfortunate that this small act is sometimes the only part of software engineering that is taught (or learned), since it is also the only part of software engineering which can be effectively self-taught. A module can be considered implemented when it has been created, tested, and successfully used by some other module (or by the system-level testing process). Creating a module is the old edit-compile-repeat cycle. Module testing includes the unit level functional and regression tests called out by the detailed design, and also performance/stress testing, and code coverage analysis.


When all modules are nominally complete, system-level integration can be done. This is where all of the modules move into a single source pool and are compiled and linked and packaged as a system. Integration can be done incrementally, in parallel with the implementation of the various modules, but it cannot authoritatively approach ``doneness'' until all modules are substantially complete. Integration includes the development of a system-level test. If the built package has to be able to install itself (which could mean just unpacking a tarball or copying files from a CD-ROM) then there should be an automated way of doing this, either on dedicated crash and burn systems or in containerized/simulated environments. Sometimes, in the middleware arena, the package is just a built source pool, in which case no installation tools will exist and system testing will be done on the as-built pool. Once the system has been installed (if it is installable), the automated system-level testing process should be able to invoke every public command and call every public entry point, with every possible reasonable combination of arguments. If the system is capable of creating some kind of database, then the automated system-level testing should create one and then use external (separately written) tools to verify the database's integrity. It's possible that the unit tests will serve some of these needs, and all unit tests should be run in sequence during the integration, build, and packaging process.

Field Testing

Field testing usually begins internally. That means employees of the organization that produced the software package will run it on their own computers. This should ultimately include all ``production level'' systems -- desktops, laptops, and servers. The statement you want to be able to make at the time you ask customers to run a new software system (or a new version of an existing software system) is ``we run it ourselves.'' The software developers should be available for direct technical support during internal field testing. Ultimately it will be necessary to run the software externally, meaning on customers' (or prospective customers') computers. It's best to pick ``friendly'' customers for this exercise since it's likely that they will find a lot of defects -- even some trivial and obvious ones -- simply because their usage patterns and habits are likely to be different from those of your internal users. The software developers should be close to the front of the escalation path during external field testing. Defects encountered during field testing need to be triaged by senior developers and technical marketers, to determine which ones can be fixed in the documentation, which ones need to be fixed before the current version is released, and which ones can be fixed in the next release (or never).


Software defects encountered either during field testing or after the software has been distributed should be recorded in a tracking system. These defects should ultimately be assigned to a software engineer who will propose a change to either the definition and documentation of the system, or the definition of a module, or to the implementation of a module. These changes should include additions to the unit and/or system-level tests, in the form of a regression test to show the defect and therefore show that it has been fixed (and to keep it from recurring later). Just as the MRD was a joint venture between engineering and marketing, so it is that support is a joint venture between engineering and customer service. The battlegrounds in this venture are the bug list, the categorization of particular bugs, the maximum number of critical defects in a shippable software release, and so on.

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Last updated: 1999-08-06