The software engineering industry is in need of some tough love to pull it into shape and transform it into a serious profession, according to Sydney University of Technology professor John Leaney.

It is an industry in dire need of standards as well as a stiff regulatory framework that includes penalties and government-driven legislation, he argues. The current landscape lacks accountability and isn't likely to change until people are - literally - killed.

According to Leaney, a major accident with an ugly death toll caused by a software glitch or failure of an information system is only a matter of time unless changes are made.

In a presentation entitled Bondage or Discipline, Professor Leaney proposed formal standards for software engineering and explored the pitfalls of runaway software technology development that came without quality and safety standards.

"Software impacts every aspect of our modern lives, yet whom do we call to account when its failure causes serious economic or human loss; there is no other industry so lacking in basic standards and quality control," he said, adding that it is not only doctors that bury their mistakes.

Leaney cited an example of a software error in a dosing machine used in cancer patient treatments that led to the death of seven people in 1993. "Software engineers aren't held liable; it's not like civil engineering where you would be facing manslaughter charges. Civil engineering has evolved over thousands of years and professionals are registered, certified and adhere to standards," he said.

"Computing is a relatively new profession dominated by commercial pressures like time-to-market allowing vendors to sidestep liability; end users really should have greater expectations and be more forthright and outspoken."

Investigating ways to build discipline into software development, Leaney said standards are often seen as a form of bondage by developers who believe it stifles creativity. He said one example is CMM (Capability Maturity Model); another is the ISO 9001 standard, which is in widespread use. "There is a huge difference between what is preached and what is practiced because the ISO 9001 standard isn't really applied, it doesn't include guarantees," Leaney said.

"If a building collapses there is compensation, because builders are in a profession that has the right infrastructure in place to support good practices. This standards problem is really unique to the software engineering profession."

The problem also lies with organisations which reduce testing times and won't buy sophisticated tools in a bid to cut costs. Leaney said IT professionals have a responsibility to ensure this doesn't happen as there is plenty of evidence that poor software constrains organizations. "These products are fundamental to business, shouldn't they be tested?"

Organisations such as Software Engineering Australia (SEA) have introduced programs such as SoftwareMark which is a software process certification product similar to the Woolmark program used by the wool industry and is akin to a quality stamp of approval.