Lack of dependability in user-developed software can be costly

October 13, 2005

Penn State University Professor of Technology and Information Science Mary Beth Rosson, PhD recently spoke at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) warning of web software problems and calling for better tools to combat it. Rosson pointed to a $1.2 billion spreadsheet error at Fannie Mae, the federal mortgage agency caused by an amateur web developer. Such software development has its opportunities, but also, needs improved methods to reign in problems.

Rosson's talk opened quoting a notable editor of the trade publication, IEEE Software. The editor complained about Web systems built by "dilettantes" in their spare time. "They've given little if any thought," said Rosson quoting the magazine, "to systematic testing, maintain-ability, design, and yes, security . . . and such systems are available to the entire Internet community."

However, despite such problems, Rosson said use-development can pay off for people and society. Economic benefits include short-circuiting the software development lifecycle and the timely production of IT solutions. Personal benefits include personal growth and self-efficacy, such as promoting control and creativity for the developer.

In an ideal world, Rosson would like to see web use-developers continue to create, but also improvements made in software tools to support testing and debugging the systems they create.

"These software tools should involve hiding details that only confuse the user, while focusing on overall design," she said. She also would like the tools to track progress and prompt for testing, plus encourage interactive debugging.

A use-developer is comfortable with an array of software applications and data sources, wants to pick and choose, configure, customize and inter-connect within this array, and has expectations that computers are tools to support activities.

In fact, there are few tools now, said Rosson, to support the use-developer, and as a result, the vast majority of these programs contain errors, some of which can be very costly.

A grant from the UPS Foundation provided funding for the talk. The lecture is one of a series of events on information systems for emergency management hosted by NJIT this year. The series culminates May 14-17, 2006, when NJIT hosts on campus the Third International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management. For more information about the conference, contact Murray Turoff ( in the Information Systems Department at NJIT.
New Jersey Institute of Technology, the state's public technological research university, enrolls more than 8,200 students in bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in 100 degree programs offered by six colleges: Newark College of Engineering, New Jersey School of Architecture, College of Science and Liberal Arts, School of Management, Albert Dorman Honors College and College of Computing Sciences. NJIT is renowned for expertise in architecture, applied mathematics, wireless communications and networking, solar physics, advanced engineered particulate materials, nanotechnology, neural engineering and eLearning.

New Jersey Institute of Technology

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