I attended ICSE 2012 in Zürich early June. I have a few notes I’ll share in dribs and drabs over the next little while. (ed: see also Eric Knauss’s summary).
Saskia Sassen gave the opening keynote, which in my mind should set the scene for the conference as a whole, coming as it does on the very first day. I don’t think it was well-received; most people found her talk obscurantist, heavily draped in the overwrought language of the liberal arts. Which is sad: having some exposure to that way of writing and thinking (thanks Geography 101: Human Geography!) I could follow with some effort (but pity those who don’t speak English natively). Consider: she used the term “softwaring” as a verb. The other critique I direct her way is that she committed the intellectually lazy sin of assuming her audience is all uniformly logical positivists (I gather because of the “engineering” term in the conference title). Those folks are definitely a majority, but a substantial number of researchers at ICSE are exploring the human side of software engineering, and are comfortable discussing different epistemologies and methodologies.
Sassen has some interesting experiences and ideas underneath her external posturing, and I think they are quite relevant to software engineering. One thing I picked out was her insistence that not everyone was ‘online’ or even wanted to be online, and we ignore them at our peril. And rather than wiring a community and stepping back to see what happens, why not see what is important first? She made reference to a phenomenon she called “barefoot engineers”, people who, post-Communism, set up rudimentary technologies like utilities outside of the traditional structures. She made the point that competence rules in the tech world, but that context of use is equally important.
I think this has clear parallels in the ethnography of software development: we tend to focus on the software developers, and I think (aside from some researchers like Bonnie Nardi, Susan Sim, my friend Jorge Aranda), ignore the contexts and communities of use of those technologies. Who are the facilitators? Who translates the knowledge? Does someone like RMS or Linus really operate in complete isolation? Wherefore all these data mining tools, anyway?
She described some of her research initiatives, too: one where 3 researchers were killed in the Amazon (I think, my memory is hazy). Which raises the question of impact of SE: not that we want people to die doing it, but presumably those deaths are for some good and noble purpose. Can we say the same about SE research?
Once you got past the language barrier, I think the keynote was excellent: she made one question the nature of one’s work, which I think is what you ask for in a keynote. A pity no one is able to force her to do a dry-run first, though.