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How does safety-critical software actually get developed?

Department of Computer Science

About the Project

Research areas: Automated and Model-Driven Software Engineering; Autonomous and self-adaptive systems; Cyber Physical Systems;
Safety of autonomous and self-adaptive systems; Software engineering; Software testing

We have lots of ideas, and in particular assumptions, about how safety-critical software is developed, but there is very little public knowledge of an ethnographic, descriptive character. We have some first-hand and second-hand experience, where researchers are (or have been practitioners), or where they teach or consult with practitioners, but we know that such unstructured knowledge is very vulnerable to distortion through all kinds of biases [1]. So much of what we do in the safety-critical software field is therefore on shaky foundations.

In this project you will study a wide variety, using surveys, interviews, and (ideally) ethnographic/contextual-inquiry methods on-site in industry. You will build a descriptive process model of how safety-critical software development really happens (see [2,3,4] for examples in related fields).

Social science research skills will be valuable for this project, as will real-world industrial experience. Competent software development skills will be necessary (otherwise, you probably won’t understand what you are observing).


[1] P. Ralph, ‘Toward Methodological Guidelines for Process Theories and Taxonomies in Software Engineering’ [], IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering, vol. 45, no. 7, pp. 712–735, Jul. 2019.

[2] J. Havinga, S. Dekker, and A. Rae, ‘Everyday work investigations for safety’ [], Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 213–228, Mar. 2018.

[3] P. Ralph, ‘Software engineering process theory: A multi-method comparison of Sensemaking–Coevolution–Implementation Theory and Function–Behavior–Structure Theory’ [], Information and Software Technology, vol. 70, pp. 232–250, Feb. 2016.

[4] J. Rooksby, M. Rouncefield, and I. Sommerville, ‘Testing in the Wild: The Social and Organisational Dimensions of Real World Practice’ [], Comput Supported Coop Work, vol. 18, no. 5–6, p. 559, Dec. 2009.

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