Ireland needs to set the world standard for software quality

16 Jul 2013

Prof Mike Hinchey, director of the Lero Irish Software Engineering Centre

What should have been a routine software upgrade at Ulster Bank last summer resulted in frustration and misery for thousands of the bank’s customers across Ireland. Some 750,000 people were unable to withdraw cash, pay their mortgages and transfer funds, as salary transfers, direct debits and social welfare payments were held up. The debacle cost the bank an estimated €103m, including €52m in compensation.

In recent weeks, a network failure mired what should have been a great day for mobile operator Three, which had just acquired O2 Ireland for €780m and thus obtained control of 40pc of the mobile market in Ireland.

Both of these situations signify to Prof Mike Hinchey, director of the Lero – the Irish Software Engineering Research Centre and a former director of NASA’s software engineering lab, the need to remember that software is actually complicated stuff that needs to be taken very seriously and requires serious expertise.

He said he is a bit exasperated by the current ‘build an app and become a millionaire’ culture that follows in the wake of success stories like Facebook and Instagram and the rise of ‘learn how to code in a day’ or ‘Java for dummies’ books that are beginning to proliferate.

Professional standards, please

Hinchey said he is all for people learning how to code, but what Ireland needs and businesses and industry in general need, is an emphasis on professional standards and a realisation by the Irish public of the importance of software as a resource.

He said he fears that despite the importance of software to Ireland – ICT accounts for €60bn or 35pc of total Irish exports, of which €50bn is software – the country has not moved on much since 2011, when the National Research Prioritisation steering group was formed and excluded software from its consideration.

The issue at stake is skills and realising software and coding is a discipline, not just a lifestyle.

“There is a big leap between 13-year-olds generating revenue from apps to developing air-traffic control systems where lives would be at stake.”

Hinchey said that while Ireland has done very well out of software – by his estimation Ireland exports 80pc of the world’s software – we need to move from the low-value “shrink-wrapped stuff” to more lucrative bespoke once-off projects, such as systems for world banks.

Hinchey returned to Ireland five years ago from NASA to take up the role of director of Lero, which co-ordinates the software commercialisation activities of six universities.

Lero’s contracts

Since he took charge, Lero has succeeded in winning lucrative contracts with organisations such as the European Space Agency, as well as various contracts under the EU’s multi-billion R&D framework. Examples of recent deals won by Lero bodies include a €2.5m European Commission-funded research programme for Trinity College Dublin-based researchers to find out how the principles of ecology can be adopted to design more stable software systems. Another example is a European Research Council grant of €2.5m for work on adaptive security and privacy with particular focus on mobile and cloud applications.

“It’s our job to sell Ireland. And despite all the bad economic news, people need to realise that Ireland is recognised as a serious centre for producing software.”

He said that his challenge on arrival at Lero was to get the universities to work together and function as a single voice when it came to winning lucrative software deals and so far the strategy appears to have worked.  

Last year, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and a consortium of top technology companies, including Intel and IBM, revealed plans to invest €22.4m over the next five years in Lero.

Hinchey said he is supportive of efforts such as the CoderDojo movement, which is fostering an appreciation of coding in children, and Lero itself has developed free Scratch teaching materials for primary and secondary school teachers. At primary level, Scratch is now being taught in more than 700 classrooms.

Hinchey himself learned how to code at the age of nine when in the late 1970s he got access to his first computer. When he graduated from UL he was awarded the President’s Gold Medal as a leading student in his graduating year. He was awarded an MsC in computation at the University of Oxford and a PhD in computer science at the University of Cambridge.

NASA programme

A yearning to see more of the world brought Hinchey to the US in 1995, where he almost accidentally stumbled on a programme by NASA to take on non-civil servants and he had to compete against experts, including Nobel-Prize winners, to take part.

His expertise in the area of self-managing software that would borrow its structure from the way nature and biology functions that could be used in future space missions landed him the job.

Four or so years later, around 2000, in order to renew his contract, a vote in the US Congress was required to keep his job because he wasn’t a civil servant in the US. During his time at NASA, he rose to the position of director of NASA’ software engineering lab, with oversight of the software used on space missions, which no doubt impressed on him that software can literally be a matter of life and death.

“People need to realise that software is relevant and important in their day-to-day lives. The problem is they don’t see it as a discipline. But think about it; everything you touch these days involves software. You cannot get up in the morning and go to bed at night without using software.

“But Ireland needs to do more than just packaging and shrink-wrapping the stuff, we need to be writing high-quality applications.”

‘People don’t understand how serious software is’

Referring to the costly glitch at Ulster Bank last year, Hinchey said the problem was caused by the update of a simple enough application. “It was a simple process that took weeks to resolve. People don’t understand how serious software is and the implications of it going wrong can affect people’s lives. In that instance, people didn’t get paid or couldn’t transfer money.”

He said people need to understand that beyond coding in popular languages like Java, software needs to be seen as an engineering discipline, and beyond entrepreneurship what is needed is a base of experienced, qualified software engineers.

He has a point. While Dublin may boast big names like Google, Twitter and Facebook, the valuable core software engineering takes place back in Silicon Valley, whereas the Dublin operations are engaged in sales and accounting activities.

“Let me put it to you like this. Some of the oldest software programs are 60 years old, were very badly written and in some cases are still used in nuclear reactors today,” said Hinchey, who is concerned about the quality of software because so much software is legacy-based. “(The software) has been there a long time and from different eras.

“Nowadays, some of the software driving important infrastructure is not up to the standards of today which are very high. And the software that is made today won’t be good enough in 10 years’ time.”

If Microsoft Word crashes on your PC, you can recover the document, Hinchey said. “But if a banking system goes down you lose accounts and information, and it can create an awful mess.”

Push for professional qualifications

In order to imbue a greater sense of the importance of software quality, Hinchey is pressing for professional qualifications beyond third and fourth-level degrees.

Ireland has a small voice, but the country can be a world leader in terms of accrediting skilled software practitioners, said Hinchey.

“By and large, Ireland’s software graduates are of a very high quality but I’ve seen it myself that people who have experience have a big advantage, and understanding how industry works is a serious advantage,” he said.

“Anyone from the IT industry would tell you that the people they’ve had as interns are much more employable than someone who just arrived from a degree programme, regardless of their grades.”

Hinchey said Ireland has made its mark as one of the world’s best places to produce software, but it needs to set its ambitions higher.

“The bespoke market is the big earner where once-off projects for global banks, airlines and energy companies bring in lucrative revenues. So far, we’ve been shrink-wrapping small value-added products, but we need to be winning the big, one-off software deals that are worth billions,” he said.

“We are ready, we can do it.”

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 14 July

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years