CMMI and Agile Blog

April 12, 2010

SEMAT Kickoff Meeting in Zurich

Filed under: Software Engineering Method & Theory (SEMAT) — pemcmahon @ 4:37 pm

    Software Engineering Method and Theory (SEMAT)

                                               By Paul McMahon

SEMAT stands for Software Engineering Method and Theory.  It is an ambitious initiative that includes participation from industry, academia and research to “refound software engineering based on a solid theory, proven principles and best practices.”   You can learn more about the vision of SEMAT at

When I was initially asked to participate in the SEMAT kickoff in Zurich I had my doubts, like others, as to its likelihood of success.  Since the March meeting in Zurich much has been written on the conflicts that ensued during the three day meeting ( 

Let me explain what I perceive as the underlying conflicts, and why I am more committed than ever and believe that SEMAT will ultimately be successful.

The conflicts are fundamental starting with the question:  What is the definition of Software Engineering?  

Some at the Zurich meeting wanted to establish a definition as the first step in the process believing this could be done by a few people in a two hour session.  Others felt such a definition would take years.  Why such a disparity of viewpoints?  Following is a taste of the related discussions that took place in Zurich that may provide insight.

“Is Software Engineering Science or Engineering?” asked one participant.   

“Science is about discovering what is.  Engineering seeks to build what never was,” replied another. 

“So what are we are trying to do?” another asked.   

 The vision of SEMAT seeks to address the problem of immature software practices as stated on its website (   But our small group at Zurich included Industry Practitioners, Consultants, like myself, Research Scientists and University Professors each viewing the problem from a different perspective.   

Another fundamental question asked was:

“Is Software Engineering about getting code to run, or is it about solving an end-user’s problem?” 

This discussion led to the people side of Software Engineering and  whether psychology should be considered part of Software Engineering.

With respect to measurement some expressed a strong desire for a “mathematical basis for the theory of Software Engineering,” while others staunchly held the position that this “places the bar too high given our current understanding of how software systems are actually developed today.”

Given such diversity of opinion at such a fundamental level why should I feel more committed than ever and confident in the ultimate success of SEMAT?  To help understand my position, let me now explain why my initial expectations were low and what changed my mind. 

When I was first asked to participate in SEMAT and I read the vision statement on the SEMAT website I felt there was little chance that substantive value would be achieved within my lifetime.  

My first big surprise occurred during the first day of the Zurich meeting when I heard the goal as set forth by our leaders (Ivar Jacobson, Bertrand Meyer and Richard Soley)  was to deliver our first product within twelve months.  As I looked around the room at all the people with differing perspectives, on this issue there appeared to be no disagreement.  We didn’t yet know exactly what we were going to deliver, but the group was committed to the twelve month deadline. 

Second, although no one believed it would be easy to achieve, a strong consensus was evident that an underlying simple set of Software Engineering Universals does exist and this group could and should define it.  It won’t be perfect after twelve months, but it will be the starting point from which SEMAT will grow. 

After the second day I was not yet convinced we would succeed or even that we knew where we were headed when we left this kickoff meeting.  But on the third day a small group led by Scott Ambler participated in the initial SEMAT requirements brainstorming session and those of us in the room could sense a common vision starting to unfold.  It was this small SEMAT requirements working group where people holding disparate views worked together based on a simple common vision that had been set forth by our leaders.   Refer to figure 1 for a picture taken at the Friday, March 19th SEMAT Requirements Brainstorming session.


  Figure 1 SEMAT Requirements Brainstorming session

From left to right in the picture are Carson Holmes, Ivar Jacobson, Paul McMahon, David Cunningham, Mira Kajko-Mattsson, and Scott Ambler (Picture by Ed Seymour). 

Multiple small SEMAT tracks are now meeting each addressing prioritized and allocated requirements that are still being refined.   The next plenary SEMAT meeting will be in Washington, D.C. July 13-14.




  1. […] I saw an article lauding the diversity of the participant group for the Zurich workshop on SEMAT. That bothered me for two reasons. One, the post seemed to assume that the gathered group […]

    Pingback by Agile Teams » Blog Archive » SEMAT and diversity — April 22, 2010 @ 5:09 am | Reply

  2. […] felt the Scott Ambler led requirements brainstorming on Day Three was a high point of the workshop (, but I would now like to explain why my support for Semat has continued to steadily grow since the […]

    Pingback by SEMAT, Theory and Measurement « CMMI and Agile Blog — May 3, 2010 @ 4:59 pm | Reply

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