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Getting the Bugs Out

Monday, November 18, 2013
Pittsburgh -- Robert Morris University has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to tackle a problem that bedevils corporations, consumers, and governments: computer software bugs.

RMU, working with eight other universities and four industry partners, will use the $186,000 grant to develop learning modules and course materials to help software students and practitioners develop reliable computer programs. The grant program will build on RMU’s existing software verification and validation coursework, and ensure that best practices are shared between industry and academia.

“By sharing with universities our insights on what students should learn in their field of study, they are better prepared as they become members of the work force,” says Ron Lachell, senior technical project manager, The PNC Financial Services Group, one of RMU’s industry partners.

Software errors plague everything from the programs that drive trading to the operating systems that run our smart phones. The media and political opponents blasted President Barack Obama over the glitch-filled launch of the Affordable Care Act web site, and the campaign of his 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney, was hamstrung by problems with its get-out-the-vote software package.

Computer software is a $300 billion industry with a success rate of no more than 40 percent, says Sushil Acharya, an associate professor of software engineering at RMU who is leading the software verification and validation project. “The problems software developers are trying to solve are growing more complex. The industry has no standardization, and customers are demanding faster delivery,” he says.

Acharya says many software errors stem from poor communication between developers and their customers, and within organizations between IT departments and business units. That’s why the learning modules will stress communication skills through the curriculum.

Another problem confronting the software industry is a shrinking talent pool with an ever-increasing workload, says Walter Schilling, an associate professor of software engineering at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), which is teaming with RMU.

“We have a lot of expertise in the Baby Boomer generation that is starting to get ready to retire. Plus we are a much more software-dependent society. If you go back 10 years, you didn’t have anyone with a smart phone,” says Schilling.

Other industry partners are Eaton Electricals, ServiceLink, and JDA Software. In addition to MSOE, academic partners are Embry Riddle University; Fairfield University; Montana Tech; Virginia State University; University of Michigan at Dearborn; and ORT Bruade College in Israel.

At RMU, Acharya is working with colleagues in the Departments of Computer and Information Systems, Mathematics, and English. Other RMU faculty on the team are Peter Wu; Priyadarshan Manohar; Allen Lias; Greg Holdan; and Connie Ruzich.

Robert Morris University, founded in 1921, is a private, four-year institution with an enrollment of approximately 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The university offers 60 undergraduate and 20 graduate programs. An estimated 22,000 alumni live and work in western Pennsylvania.