Ada point man staves off chaos
- By John Monroe
- May 05, 1996
Charles Engle Jr., the Pentagon's point man for the Ada software language and resolving the Year 2000 software conundrum, told a joke that gives some insight into the complexity of these two jobs.
Speaking at last month's Defense Department Software Technology Conference, Engle related a tale of an engineer, a mathematician and a software engineer who were arguing about who had the oldest profession.
"In the beginning, God said, `Let there be light,' " the electrical engineer said. "You need an electrical engineer to do that, so I have the oldest profession."
The mathematician also cited the Bible, pointing out that God created order out of chaos. "That's what a mathematician does, so I have the oldest profession," the mathematician said. The software engineer laughed at his companions. "Why are you laughing?" the mathematician asked.
"Well, you just proved my point," the software engineer said. "Who do you think created that chaos to begin with?"
Engle, head of DOD's Ada Joint Program Office (AJPO) and the leader of the Year 2000 team at the Defense Information Systems Agency, works hard to stave off chaos.
In one role, he promulgates DOD's unpopular policy of using Ada as its programming language of choice because it offers the capability to bring order to an often chaotic process. In the other role, he must convince people that a rather esoteric issue—the inability of some software programs to handle Year 2000 date fields—is an immediate and serious problem.
In either case, Engle can readily observe how difficult it is for people to discuss software issues, let alone resolve them. In many cases, these difficulties stem from a dichotomy in how well the DOD community understands software development. Software professionals "view it as a job, but for the common layman, it's a kind of magic," Engle said. "There is no appreciation for how vulnerable we can be and how reliant [on software] we have become."
The Pentagon hopes Engle, an educator by trade, can bridge that gap. Engle is on loan from the Florida Institute of Technology, where he is an associate professor and the former chairman of the computer science department. As head of the AJPO, Engle's task is to educate people about DOD's Ada policy and to foster the development of Ada technology through cooperative work with DOD organizations, vendors and the university community.
But his job at the AJPO is far broader in scope than the narrow confines of the AJPO mission. Engle has the task of convincing organizations that they stand to gain from using Ada. This became a major focus of the AJPO, with the development last year of Ada 95, which corrected deficiencies and enhanced the capabilities of the original Ada 83 programming language.
Engle knows Ada 83 and its deficiencies well because he worked on its development as a graduate student at Stanford University. DOD later paid for Engle to get his doctorate at Brooklyn Polytechnic University and hired him at West Point as an Ada instructor "back when those were rare birds," he said.
Engle also had a role in education as deputy program manager at the Software Engineering Institute, a federally funded research and development center. He left SEI to take the position at Florida Tech.
It was at West Point that Engle received the best training for his current position. There he became involved in a DOD Ada Software and Engineering Training Team. In a program Engle refers to as "Johnny Ada Seed," DOD sent Engle and a colleague to military installations to brief people on Ada virtues and policy.
His position at the AJPO is more prestigious, but it still requires a fair amount of mission work. For example, with the popularity of C++ and other commercial programming languages, numerous camps in DOD resist the department's insistence on using Ada for its major programs.
For example, until recently most DOD educational institutions did not offer extensive Ada programs. Engle knows from his experience at Florida Tech that "getting educators to agree on anything is like herding cats," he said.
But Engle believes DOD's Ada policy is important. However attractive people may find C++, its lack of standardization and technical limitations often make it a poor substitute for Ada, particularly Ada 95, for any software that DOD will need to maintain. Putting the software battle in the bluntest of terms, Engle said, "I don't want to fly an aircraft [with an avionics system] that's programmed in C++."
Engle's interests in software extend beyond Ada. He also heads up DOD's software reuse initiative and has explored DOD's potential uses of Java, a programming language from Sun Microsystems Inc. developed for Internet-based applications.
His most pressing issue right now is the Year 2000, a topic so popular it has spawned the acronym Y2K. In Engle's mind, this issue captures perfectly the difficulties of discussing software issues among groups with different levels of understanding.
For example, most laymen do not understand the nature of the Year 2000 problem or its ramifications. On the other hand, many engineers view it as rather easily identified and fixed. In one sense, Engle said, the engineers are right: An individual fix is fairly simple. But software is so pervasive in DOD information and weapons systems that the agency is certain not to catch all the problems by the millennium, he said.
Engle is a member of the National Software Summit, a panel of software professionals looking at ways the United States can ensure that it remains competitive in the software industry. For example, "in order to cut your hair, I have to have a license; but to write software that guides nuclear weapons...I don't have to have any kind of license," Engle said.
To Engle, that is no laughing matter.