If software errors go undetected, this can not only reduce sales significantly. In the worst case, people die. Finding errors before launching the software also costs a lot of money. According to a study by Cambridge University, software developers spend half of their programming time finding and repairing bugs. Andreas Zeller, professor of software engineering at the CISPA – Helmholtz-Center in Gründung, has therefore already developed several techniques that automate the testing of software. He is now the first German computer scientist to receive the award for outstanding research in the field of software engineering from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).
The list of devastating programming errors is long: from Therac-25, a medical irradiation device that due to faulty programming irradiated organs and killed three people in 1985 and 1987, to a system failure that in 2005 paralyzed the Tokyo Stock Exchange and caused $300 million in damage, to the multi-billion Euro space telescope Hitomi, which at the end of March 2016 spun too fast in space due to various software anomalies and finally broke up.
Hence, Andreas Zeller has been researching for about 20 years how to prevent software errors with the help of computing power. For his work, he is receiving the "Outstanding Research Award" of the "Special Interest Group on Software Engineering", in short SIGSOFT. This group is part of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), which is considered the first international, scientific society for computer science.
The award includes an honorary plaque and $1,000 in prize money. In addition, Zeller is invited to give a keynote address at the upcoming "International Conference for Software Engineering" in Gothenburg, Sweden, which starts on May 27. SIGSOFT has announced this on the conference website.
In particular, the Prize Committee justified Zeller's choice by referring to the method of "Delta Debugging" which he invented, and the techniques he developed to automatically examine the work archives of programmers in order to obtain information on possible sources of error.
Delta debugging, on the one hand, automatically narrows down the source software errors by systematically omitting input and verifying that the error still exists. "Applied to a rattling in the car, one would remove the contents of the trunk, floor mats, doors and seats, until only what is left is what causes the rattling," explains Zeller. Now Zeller also focuses his researcher's attention on the challenges of IT security.
To this end, at the new CISPA – Helmholtz-Center in Gründung, he is investigating among other things how cars can be protected against hacker attacks. So this will not be the last award Zeller receives. Back in 2011, the European Research Council awarded him the "Advanced Grant" and the associated prize money of 2.3 million Euros.
So far five of his research projects have received commendation because they demonstrably advanced software engineering in the past ten years. Zeller, who is considered a very good communicator among colleagues and students, is also active as an entrepreneur. In 2013, together with colleagues, he founded the start-up "Testfabrik". It enables automatic testing of complex web applications.