Computer science professors, students receive prestigious software engineering research awards

Studies by Vanderbilt computer science professors and students that could impact productivity and growth in software engineering have received two prestigious awards from top scientific venues.

The first paper – “A Longitudinal Study of Student Contributions to OSS vs. OSS4SG with a Lightweight Intervention” – received an ACM SIGSOFT Distinguished Paper Award at the 2024 ACM International Conference on the Foundations of Software Engineering (FSE). The second paper – “Breaking the Flow: A Study of Interruptions During Software Engineering Activities” – received another ACM SIGSOFT Distinguished Paper Award from the 2024 International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE).

The ACM SIGSOFT Distinguished Paper Awards are given to the top 10% of scientific papers accepted at the most prestigious ACM venues. Both papers are led by Vanderbilt computer science students working under the direction of Professors Kevin Leach and Yu Huang.

Zihan Fang, a first-year Ph.D. student in Huang’s lab in the Computer Science Department, led the first paper. Recent growth in demand for professional software engineers has led to increased contributions to, and usage of, Open Source Software (OSS). However, there is limited understanding of the factors affecting how developers choose and contribute to OSS projects, a process critical to OSS sustainability, access, adoption, and growth. It is also a great opportunity to understand how OSS for social good affect developers’ motivations.

To better understand the challenges in OSS, the researchers conducted a four-year study with 1,361 computer science students (i.e., future software developers) investigating the life cycle of their contributions. During the study, the researchers also delivered a lightweight intervention to promote the awareness of Open Source Software projects for Social Good (OSS4SG) that have positive societal impacts, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The results indicate that OSS4SG participation will likely lead to better contribution and learning outcomes, especially among novice contributors.

“Our findings may help improve the experience for new developers participating in OSS4SG and the quality of their contributions,” said Huang. “We also hope our work helps educators, project leaders, and contributors to build a mutually-beneficial framework for the future growth of OSS4SG.”

The authors of “Breaking the Flow” include Yimeng Ma, who led the research under the guidance of Leach and Huang. The project investigated the impact of interruptions on software engineering productivity using physiological and psychological measurements of software engineers. Ma completed an undergraduate computer science degree at Vanderbilt in 2023 and is pursuing graduate study at Duke University.

Software developers routinely face distractions and interruptions throughout their day, like email notifications and Slack alerts. However, more urgent interruptions, such as a manager demanding a task be completed, may pose an additional burden on developer productivity. This project is the first to objectively quantify the impact of these interruptions on software development tasks. The results suggest that in-person interruptions by a manager in fact reduce physiological measures of stress, like heart rate variability, but does not affect developers’ ability to correctly complete programming tasks, despite the developers reporting otherwise.

“The findings will have an impact on the hiring and management of software developers, especially in an era of increased interest in remote work,” said Leach.


Contact: Lucas Johnson,