Watts Humphrey, the “Father of Software Quality,” passed away at his residence in Florida in October. His unparalleled contribution to software engineering made him one of the icons of the discipline. He dedicated a significant part of his life to addressing core software engineering issues related to schedule delays, cost overruns, performance issues and software defects. Indeed, his death is an immense loss to the software engineering community.
Across the globe, Humphrey is well known to all software engineering professionals. After all, he was the founder of the Software Process Program at Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute. I was introduced to some of his writings during my college days and have read chapters from some of his books. His works are referenced and quoted frequently by academia as well as the industry. In November of 2009, the SEI published a special report entitled, “The Watts New Collection: Columns by the SEI’s Watts Humphrey,” which is a must-read for all software engineers.
Humphrey was born on July 4, 1927, in Battle Creek, Mich. While in first grade, he found it very difficult to read lessons and eventually failed that year. Later, his family moved to New England, where Humphrey did well in his studies. He had dyslexia, a learning disability that impairs the ability to read. With hard work and dedication, Humphrey graduated valedictorian of his high school class.
Subsequently, he joined the United States Navy, where he earned top scores in Morse code lessons. He later earned a degree in physics from the University of Chicago and completed a master’s degree in physics from Illinois Institute of Technology. He also received an MBA from the University of Chicago. During his graduate studies at IIT, he had the privilege to have Enrico Fermi as his professor of nuclear physics.
Humphrey spent 27 years at IBM, where he worked with thousands of software engineers spread across several laboratories in seven countries. At IBM, he gained valuable experience with stalwarts such as Fred Brooks and Bob Evans, who won the National Medal of Technology for their contribution to introducing IBM 360.
From IBM, Humphrey joined the SEI to establish the Software Process Program, which culminated in the Software Capability Maturity Model. Humphrey also introduced the Software Process Assessment and Software Capability Evaluation methods. All of this work became the foundation of the Capability Maturity Model Integration, which has been adopted by organizations across the globe.
Humphrey’s passion for his work in software engineering motivated him to join the SEI, which later named him its first SEI Fellow. This is an honor given to accomplished professionals with outstanding commitment.
Humphrey realized the significance of software engineering teams and their challenges in delivering high-quality software on schedule. He developed the Team Software Process, an approach that provides professionals with the skills they need to create and track plans and delivery high-quality software on schedule.
Humphrey authored 12 books on software engineering, as well as several technical reports, journal articles and columns. In 2003, he was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush in a special ceremony. (In the U.S., this is the highest honor for technical achievement.)
In a 2009 interview published by Grady Booch on behalf of Computer History Museum, Humphrey offered the following advice to young professionals:
“I think increasingly, people in the computing business who are really familiar with it and knowledgeable in it are going to be in a very powerful position for opportunities down the road. But I think that depends on the degree to which they connect that and begin to build people skills in parallel. That’s crucial.
“By and large, as I’ve looked back in my career to the things that I’ve done and the decisions I’ve made, the actions I’ve taken which turned out, in retrospect, to be mistakes, are almost without exception—I can’t think of any exception, actually—they were decisions I made that in the back of my mind I was worried about, ‘What’s in it for me? Am I going to get ahead? Am I going to get visibility? Is somebody going to see me? Will I get that promotion?’ When that’s in the equation, we tend to make very bad decisions. So trying to make objective decisions is extremely important.
“I guess I’d say one other thing, and that is luck is extremely important in this business, but I don’t believe that unprepared people are lucky. I think when you’re prepared and when you know what you’re doing and you’ve got a good foundation, it’s amazing how often luck shows up. You get these breaks. Something happens. So we want to count on good luck, but we need to be prepared for bad luck. My experience has been that when you’re prepared for things to go badly, they usually don’t. So it’s been a marvelous career, and I’ve been very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time for an awful lot of stuff in this business, and it’s been a wonderful 60 years.”
Humphrey’s life provides us several insights. When he failed first grade, his father told him, “If you want to try it and you’re willing to work at it, you can do it.” This advice changed his life. He went on to be valedictorian in high school and had several success stories throughout his life. Humphrey’s contribution to software engineering is invaluable and everlasting. His writings will continue to enlighten our industry and seed further innovations in software engineering.
Raja Bavani heads delivery for MindTree’s Software Product Engineering group in Pune, India, and also plays the role of SPE evangelist.