Do end-users need software engineering skills?

I’ve been asked to write a Point, or maybe it’s a Counterpoint for a special issue of IEEE Software on End-user Software Engineering. I’ll be writing it jointly with my colleague, Mark Vigder.  Our point is that end-users need to have some software engineering skills.  Mark had a good analogy.  Thirty years or so ago, noone would have thought it was necessary for managers or executives to have typing skills, and now it’s almost unthinkable to not be able to do your own typing.  To me, software engineers have perfected, or at least advanced, many of the skills necessary to store and manipulate information in a digital context.

The skills that I think are most useful include debugging which more generally means problem solving in the sense of figuring out the cause for some effect and then being able to change things to get the desired effect.  I guess this actually translates more generally to testing practices in different contexts as well – such as making sure that you meet your requirements.  Another important skill is versioning.  I mean, isn’t it shocking that tools like Word still do not have effective versioning control.  But especially when you’re working in a team, you need to have a way to control documents.  Usually, we just use a “talk lock” meaning telling people not to work on it, and saving past drafts.  Probably in the future, not too distant, I hope, versioning will be embeded into all sorts of activities, and people will then need to have some cognitive model of how versioning works.  I think another important skill be based on creating useful widgets by combining components.  We can already see this in the proliferation of mash-ups.  I believe that the cognitive skill associated to this has to do with understanding things like information flow related to things like APIs.  Anyhow, you can see I’m just starting to think this through, so any thoughts or comments?  We’re thinking of calling the column something like, “Reading, Writing, Arithmetic…Software Engineering.”

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