How to Have an Impact as a Software Engineering Researcher

Over on Facebook of all places, I took part in a short discussion on how, as a researcher, to have an impact on practice. It is not a convenient answer, but in my opinion, if you want to have an impact, you should go into practice yourself. You can also send your students, but this creates a generational lag of research-to-practice transfer that can span decades.

One of the suggestions of how to have an impact was to perform action research. The idea is that you are creating change in an organization where you are performing said action research. However, action research is a research method whose purpose it is to help you build out and evaluate a theory. Unless you are into critical theory, action research does not have, as a primary goal, to change industry. It is just a theory building method.

By definition, research has research results as a purpose, and industry impact might at best be a side-effect. So if you want to have industry impact, you should choose a method that has such impact as its primary purpose.

A direct way to impact industry is to perform paid consulting. Unlike publicly funded research, in paid consulting, you know industry wants your expertise and will take it seriously. I for one almost always make it a precondition for engaging with industry, because this way I know I’m being take seriously and our work will get the necessary support from the company. If they are not paying, in my experience, it won’t stick.

An even better way of impacting industry is to spin out (of university) startups. This is the final proof of the pudding, i.e the value of your research and its long-term effects: Will customers buy? Not just one single consulting client, but a whole market? If you can achieve that, you know you have had an impact.


Update the day after: Per Runeson critiqued that action researchers generally argue that action research has industry impact as a primary purpose. In my experience, action research does both: Help you build out a theory, and have an impact at the organization that you are working with. In contrast to what the method books say, I can’t see how both have equal standing, though. I value the theory building much more than what I can do for one organization I’m working with.

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