Mining footprints

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Professor Mei Nagappan spends most of his time following digital footprints to see where they lead. “The goal of our research is to make the life of a software engineer slightly easier tomorrow than it is today,” he explained.

Born and raised in India, Nagappan first developed an interest in computer science as a high school student. “In Grade 11, I learned programming from an excellent teacher who made everything click for me,” he remembered. Rather than apply his skills in an industry setting, Nagappan chose to become the kind of teacher who makes difficult concepts click for his own students. “I wanted to go to a university where professors care about the success of their students,” he affirmed. “When I arrived at the University of Waterloo four years ago, I knew I was in the right place.”

Now, as an associate professor and current Ross & Muriel Cheriton Faculty Fellow at the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science, Nagappan guides and mentors a team of eight to ten students every semester in their mission to help software engineers build more effective, high-quality software. Under the umbrella of empirical software engineering, his team mines software repositories and measures the quality of the software using criteria like the number of new bugs it created and how difficult the bugs are to fix.

In his experience, software engineers are grateful for a partner in identifying and solving the bugs that inevitably arise with widespread use. More often than not, they turn to academic experts like Nagappan to analyze code using more sophisticated tools than they can access on their own. “Especially in a tech hub like Waterloo, companies want to work with us because they know that the research tools we’re developing today will impact their business in the future,” said Nagappan. He points to one of the most popular studies he conducted, which mined the Google Play App store to categorize and analyze user complaints, as an example. “The app companies are small and lack the bandwidth for research, so we stepped in to help,” he explained.

Nagappan expresses gratitude for the intellectual freedom that gives him the green light to work with tech companies without hitting any bureaucratic roadblocks. “Because of the University’s policy to give students and professors full ownership over their intellectual property, I can work with companies very easily, which is not the case in most academic institutions,” he affirmed. “Opportunity like this is rare.”