Logo: University of Southern California

NAE President Sets High Goal for Viterbi School's CSSE

First convocation of USC Center for Systems and Software Engineering opens with a resounding challenge
Eric Mankin
October 30, 2006 —
Wulf: CSSE "a perfect place to rethink old assumptions
The President of the National Academy of Engineering last week offered the Viterbi School's new Center for Systems and Software Engineering an extraordinary mission: rethink engineering.

William Wulf put forth the mission in a thoughtful speech at the CSSE inaugural convocation Oct 23-25, at a lunch attended not only by CSSE affiliates and faculty members, but also by USC President Steven B. Sample (who introduced Wulf), Provost C.L. Max Nikias and most of the Viterbi School Board of Councilors.

The CSSE merges the Center for Software Engineering, created in 1993 by Professor Barry Boehm with the systems research tradition established by renowned theorist Eberhardt Rechtin in the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering .  

“I applaud this new organization,” said Wulf, and declared that its expertise made it uniquely qualified to embark on a striking task no less than a revised paradigm of engineering method, one taking into account the increasing complexity of engineering problems.

Wulf, himself a software engineer, cited a wide range of references in his half-hour speech, informed by his years as leader of one of the three bodies officially charged (by Abraham Lincoln) with providing the U.S. government with the best available scientific advice.

For years, Wulf noted, engineers in other disciplines have regarded software engineers with trepidation and suspicion, because their subject fell beyond the traditional tools and methods used in more traditional engineering disciplines such as materials science or civil engineering.

These disciplines, Wulf explained, are defined by natural physical constraints established by the behavior of materials. His mechanical engineer father, Wulf recounted, had a small book on his drafting table that described all the metals he would ever use.

Software engineers, by contrast, work in a world with no essentially no physical constraints. Where the behavior of a metal can be thought of a continuum, a smooth set of points.  Software is discrete, ones and zeros, abstract, symbolic and unpredictable.  Even extensive testing can fail to reveal problems.

Software and systems engineers have learned to live with the rules of their artificial realms, Wulf said. And this experience s vital because now, he noted, more and more of the natural world falls into the same complexity-plagued jungle of freedom.  

Traditional engineering approaches have handled larger systems by two strategies. One is modularization, building large with many

CSSE co-chair Barry Boehm (left) and Wulf.
smaller units, all with understood behavior.   The other was abstraction, being able to estimate accurately quantities and behavior by making simplifying assumptions.
 But “these tools are both breaking down,” said Wulf.

Because humans are less and less limited by the nature, as with designer materials, and their projects are now on a scale that can produce drastic and potentially catastrophic environmental changes.  Even modular units can interact unpredictably in larger numbers. The simplifying assumptions are, more and more clearly, oversimplifications.

“We may need to rethink a lot of our assumptions,” said Wulf, “And I think CSSE is a perfect place to rethink them.”

CSSE builds on CSE's tradition of working closely with affiliates in industry, governmen and academia, including concerns like Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Motorola, NASA and Raytheon.

Faculty affiliates include eight mebers of the NAE and ten IEEE fellows.

Wulf, who was reelected in 2001 to a second six-year term, has served as NAE president since 1997. He is on leave from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, where he is a university professor and holds the AT&T Chair in Engineering and Applied Sciences. Wulf has had a distinguished career that includes periods spent as assistant director of the National Science Foundation; chair and chief executive officer of Tartan Laboratories Inc., Pittsburgh; and professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.