Having just received the prestigious title of 2020 ACM Fellow, Lionel Briand, Professor at the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Faculty of Engineering, explains how his unusual approach to research in Software Engineering is closing the gap between academia and industry.
Every year, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) recognizes some of its top 1% members as ACM Fellows, an elite group of outstanding researchers who have all made fundamental contributions to the computing field. The award is one of the most prestigious in its field, the only higher distinction being the ACM Turing Award - the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in computing. This year, the list of ACM Fellows included Faculty of Engineering Professor Lionel Briand, whose innovative approach to research in software engineering creates a tangible impact in the industry.
Professor Briand’s main area of expertise is software verification and validation, including automated testing, encompassing a set of technologies to automatically guarantee that software systems can be trusted. “Software systems are being used in all sectors of industry and are becoming increasingly complex and critical” he says. “My research interests lie in ensuring the safety, reliability and security of those complex software systems”.
Instead of approaching research solely through an academic lens, Professor Briand has taken the habit of turning to industry to identify his next research focus. By collaborating with public institutions and private companies, he is able to align his work with practical engineering needs and build impactful solutions that can be directly deployed in an organization.
For example, Prof. Briand has worked with the company Delphi Technologies, a large supplier of automotive parts that has now been acquired by BorgWarner Inc.. Professor Briand, in collaboration with colleagues and students, worked with automotive partners to develop automated techniques to detect and repair faults in safety-critical software, for example used to control the engine, identify pedestrians on the street, or trigger emergency braking. Some of this software was based on Artificial Intelligence, which tends to make the trustworthiness of systems an even more elusive objective. Engineers were thus able to save tremendous time and effort in debugging and ensuring safety due to the solutions he developed.
Such close collaboration with industry is not a usual approach in software engineering research. As Prof. Briand says, “In this field, we are too often working on problems that are disconnected from any realistic context. The real challenges with software development are normally encountered in industry, not in academia”.
Because software is present in so many parts of our lives, the array of industries in which Prof. Briand can apply his research is diverse. Over the course of his career, Prof. Briand has worked with over 30 companies in the automotive, satellite, aerospace, energy, financial, and legal sectors.
The benefits of these collaborations are mutual. For a company, it is particularly valuable to partner with a research lab like Prof. Briand’s in order to be able to innovate without the tremendous risks and costs that can be associated. “Not all companies have access to experts in software verification and validation within their organization” he explains. “And, even if they do, it would not be profitable or even practical to have your top engineers working on innovation projects for long periods of time”.
This is where academia can come in to fill the gaps. For a researcher like Professor Briand, conducting these high-risk research projects is what fuels his passion. “I like to do research with a purpose, and when I am able use my findings to reach a real, applicable solution, it makes my work feel so much more valuable,” he says.
Through the years, with his innovative approach to research, he has distinguished himself as a renowned leader in his field. Only two months into 2021, and the newly appointed ACM Fellow has already received a second prestigious award, the ICSE Most Influential Paper Award, which he is receiving for the second time. He was also named IEEE Fellow in 2010 and received the IEEE Computer Society Harlan Mills award and the IEEE Reliability Society Engineer-of-the-year award in 2012 and 2013. More recently in 2019, he was awarded a Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) on "Intelligent Software Dependability and Compliance".
As for his next steps, Professor Briand says he wants to foster new collaborations with industry, especially at the local level. “I wanted to get involved in Ottawa’s large tech industry” he says. “The partnership between uOttawa and Kanata North was really interesting to me, and is one of the factors that motivated me to come here”. Further, he notes that “We are lucky in Canada to benefit from a generous funding ecosystem to support industry-academia collaborations, for example through NSERC Alliance or Mitacs.”
Prof. Lionel Briand is currently looking to connect with new companies and invites businesses to get in touch with him. To learn more about his research, you can visit his personal website, www.lbriand.info or contact him directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.