On teaching software engineering

Be sure to include current topics in your lectures when teaching software engineering. Here are some hints.

overheadIn my rare spare time, I hold lectures on software engineering at the University of Cooperative Education in Karlsruhe. The topics range from evergreens like UML to modern subjects like aspect oriented programming (AOP) or Test Driven Development (TDD).

One thing I observe is that students don’t have difficulty separating the old topics from the current ones, even if they hear both of them for the first time. It seems that subject matter ages by itself, just like source code does. So, I’m constantly searching for new topics to include in the lectures, replacing the oldest ones.

Three things to include in your lectures

Some months ago, I read a very good blog post written by Alan Skorkin, titled “3 Things They Should Have Taught In My Computer Science Degree”. Alan covers three points:

  1. Open Source Development
  2. An Agile Process (e.g. XP, Scrum)
  3. Corporate Politics/Building Relationships

The idea of missed opportunities to tell some fundamentals to my students struck me. I compared my presentations to the list, finding the leading two topics covered to a great extent. The last one, corporate politics, is a bit off-topic for a technical lecture. But nevertheless, it’s too important to omit completely, so I already had included some Tom DeMarco lessons in my presentations. Perhaps I can build this part up a bit in the future.

What they should have taught me

Soon afterwards, I though about things my lecturers missed during my study. Here’s the list with only two points in addition to Alan’s list:

  • Age and “maturity” of topic: When I was a student, I quickly identified old topics, like my students do nowadays. What I couldn’t tell was if a topic was mature (a classic) or just deprecated. It would have helped to announce that a topic was necessary, but of little actual relevance in modern software development craftmanship. Or that a topic is academical news, but yet unheard of in the industry and lacking wide-spread acceptance. Both extremes were blended together in the presentations, creating an unique mixture of antiquated and futuristic approaches. This is a common problem of Advanced Beginners in the Dreyfus model.
  • Ergonomics and Effectiveness: I still can’t believe I didn’t hear a word about proper workplace setup from my teachers. I had courses teaching me how to learn, but not a single presentation that taught me how to work. This topic ranges from the right chair over lighting to screen size and quantity and could be skimmed over in less than an hour. But it doesn’t stop with the hardware. Entire books like Neal Ford’s “The Productive Programmer” cover the software side of effective workplace setup. And even further, the minimal set of tools a software developer should use (e.g. IDE, SCM, CI, issue tracker, Wiki) wasn’t even mentioned.

I hope to provide all these topics and information to my students in a recognizable (and rememberable) manner. They deserve to learn about the latest achievements in software engineering. Otherwise you aren’t prepared to work in an industry changing fundamentally every five to ten years. Of course, hearing about the classic stuff is necessary, too.

Give me feedback. What are your missed topics during apprenticeship, study or even work?

Update: In case you can’t visit my lectures but want to know a bit about ergonomics, I’ve written two blog articles on this topic: