CCR Special 3 — Herbert Lechner on Software Engineering

In my posts covering the first season of Computer Chronicles, I noted that some of the episode recordings included interstitial segments presented by Herbert Lechner, who also occasionally guest hosted for Gary Kildall during this 1983-84 period. These segments were part of a “telecourse” marketed by Wadsworth Publishing Company as part of its “continuing education professional series.” The idea was to pair the first 26 Chronicles episodes with a companion textbook for students to follow along and learn more in-depth about the topics discussed on the show. Lechner authored the book (as H.D. Lechner) in addition to hosting the special segments.

The book is difficult to find in print form these days. I saw a copy offered for sale on eBay for $94, and some academic libraries report having copies on their shelves. But fortunately, you can access the full text of the book at the Internet Archive. Well, actually you can “rent” access one hour at a time via the Archive.

I’ve had a chance to look through The Computer Chronicles in book form. The text is divided into five sections–Computer Hardware, Computer Software, Computer Applications, Computers and People, and Computers in the Future–encompassing a total of 26 chapters. Each chapter corresponds to an episode of the television series. However, the order is significantly different. For example, while the second episode broadcast was on “Integrated Software,” that is chapter 10 in the book. So if you were following along with the show via the telecourse and the textbook, you would be watching everything out of order. (Presumably, the telecourse episodes did not include the time-sensitive “Random Access” segments, which would have only confused matters further.)

It’s also clear the book was written at the same time as the first batch of episodes were in production. Some chapters do include pull-quotes from guests on the actual episodes. But for the most part, you don’t really need to have watched the show to read and understand the text. The book also had a publication date of March 1984, which was shortly after the release of the Macintosh, which was only referred to in a picture, while some of the text still referred to the Apple Lisa as an active product.

The First “Lost” Episode

I’m not going to review the chapters in any great detail, as they basically just provide additional technical and historical background for the subjects discussed in the televised episodes. But I will briefly point to chapter 8 of the book, entitled “Application Development.” This chapter was meant to correspond with the 20th broadcast episode on “Software Utilities,” which I have not covered on the blog.

The reason for my lack of coverage is quite simple: There’s no publicly available recording of the episode–at least not yet. There are, in fact, several episodes presently lost or missing from the Internet Archive’s repository, which was taken from original tapes provided by Stewart Cheifet. I’ve been told by reliable sources that the Archive does now have a complete set of tapes, so eventually these lost episodes may once again see the light of day. But for now, the “Software Utilities” episode remains something of a mystery.

The chapter in the book also provided me with no useful clues as to who appeared on this episode or what products were discussed. Given the late place in the production order, I suspect Lechner wrote this chapter before the episode actually taped. His text focused on explaining the process of software development and software engineering, but he only spoke in generalities without delving into particular software products.

With respect to the state of software engineering in 1983-84, Lechner had this to say:

Several major issues affect application development productivity, not the least of which are the fact that it is poorly defined and hard to quantify, and that little valid data has been collected on which to base productivity analyses. Nonetheless, a number of factors illustrate the importance of software engineering. First, more effort goes into maintaining applications than in developing them (43 percent of the costs over an application life are generally for development, 49 percent are for maintenance, and 8 percent are for other reasons). Second, application development techniques have high initial costs in hardware and training. Third, university and college education in the area of large-scale application development is weak. Large-system development can take many years to complete, and it is difficult to have “laboratory training” in this process at school. Fourth, methods by which software engineers can be motivated and retained are not well understood. And fifth, users are, as indicated, ambivalent in many cases in their attitudes towards application specification.

Expounding on that fourth point–how to motivate and retain software engineers–Lechner said he thought the best practice was to simply hire better engineers in first place:

In selecting programmers and analysts, an organization should use validated application programmer testing, hire those with valuable and applicable experience, and adhere to proven employment practices such as good reference checking.

I suspect a lot of people working today as software engineers would find this attitude rigid, patriarchal, and exclusionary. Of course, Lechner’s career was spent largely in big business in academia. He started at IBM in the 1950s and later worked for Singer Corporation and American Express before joining SRI International as a vice president. So he wasn’t exactly the type of person you’d expect to embrace the 1980s bedroom BASIC coder or the 21st century self-taught Python developer.

A Norton Footnote

As I said, we don’t have any solid data on this missing “Software Utilities” episode. But I believe that one of the guests was Peter Norton, creator of The Norton Utilities. There’s a few reasons for this. First, a reader alerted me sometime back to an episode featuring Peter Norton, and I couldn’t find one on the publicly available archive. Second, Stewart Cheifet himself referred to an episode featuring Norton during a 2013 interview with Leo Laporte. And given the listed title of the episode was “Software Utilities,” it makes sense that Norton would have been a guest, as he was still actively developing Norton Utilities during this time period.