The purpose of software

To understand the purpose of software, we first need to understand what software actually is. So what is it? It’s a tool. Nothing more, nothing less.

We developed tools, over the course of our evolution, to help us gain significant advantage over other species and to make our lives better. Our brain’s capacity to create sophisticated technology is what brought us to where we are today. We developed an unprecedented way of living, here on this planet and, in the last few decades, we changed it so drastically and so fast, that we can barely understand the impact it has on our environment and on ourselves.

The advanced technology we use today is mostly created and run by software. Farming tools, communication devices, transportation, scientific research, weapons, etc., they all have software controlling most stages in their processes. So the purpose of software, as the tool that it is, is to operate other tools, which in turn will serve us in solving specific domain problems.
Software development became such a big deal in our society, that ever more people are doing it and want to do it. Unfortunately, a lot of software developers (and dare I say the majority) make software development a purpose in itself, not giving the actual domain problem too much thought (or not at all in many cases). This doesn’t make any sense. How can you know your tool is actually helping?
Some might argue that software can be broken down into components, which can be independently built and then integrated at the end. Somewhat similar to a car factory. I understand the need for this mindset: it makes reasoning about things, easier. However, because of the “soft” nature of software, it is orders of magnitude easier to customize and change it than it is for car parts. This is actually the reality of software development: constant change. Still, it seems like most of the time, we build software systems that are difficult to change and maintain. Attempts have been made, to change this (e.g. XP, agile, lean, etc.), but somehow we took those ideas and turned them on their head until we ended up where we started, software difficult to change and maintain.

It’s difficult to see software as merely a tool, when there are countless hours being spent just to learn a particular programming language or operating system. There are egos at stake, personal targets, preferences. Social aspects basically. I don’t doubt similar things happen in other industries as well, but the nature of software integrates better with our capabilities. This has been observed quite some time ago already (Conway’s law).

We need to find better ways of creating and using this tool, because, let’s not forget it’s just a tool and it’s meant to make our lives better.