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National Medal of Technology Winner Watts Humphrey, 1927 - 2010


October 28, 2010Watts Humphrey, founder of the Software Process Program at the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute (SEI) and recipient of the National Medal of Technology, died today at his home in Sarasota, Florida. He was 83.

“Watts Humphrey was one of the icons of software engineering—one of a handful of engineers like Barry Boehm, Fred Brooks, and Vic Basili who have helped define this young field,” said SEI director and CEO Dr. Paul Nielsen.  “Watts brought engineering to software engineering. His work has had immeasurable impact on the global software community, tirelessly urging the community to emphasize quality, measurement, and performance.”

Known as the “Father of Software Quality” Humphrey dedicated the majority of his career to addressing problems in software development including schedule delays, cost increases, performance problems, and defects. Humphrey joined the SEI in 1986, after making what he described as an “outrageous commitment to change the world of software engineering.”

“Changing the world of anything is an outrageous personal commitment,” Humphrey said in an interview in early 2010, discussing his decision to come to the SEI. “I knew I couldn’t do it alone, and I wanted to be in an environment where I could work with folks and do that.” 

“As the pioneering innovator behind several important software development processes, Humphrey more than met his promise to change the world of software engineering. His contributions go well beyond methodology and the many awards and accolades he received. For decades, his work inspired software engineers and his colleagues and friends worldwide. His warmth, energy, great spirit and dedication will be missed by all of us at Carnegie Mellon,” said Jared L. Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon University.

Born on July 4, 1927, in Battle Creek, Michigan, Humphrey had a difficult time learning to read as a young child, and failed first grade. His father, also named Watts, moved the family to New England and enrolled his eldest son and namesake in a school where he could get one-to-one help with his reading. Humphrey, who later learned that he had dyslexia, graduated valedictorian of his high school class. After serving in the United States Navy, Humphrey earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Chicago. He then completed a master’s degree in physics from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and an MBA degree from the University of Chicago.

He arrived at the SEI after working for nearly three decades at IBM where, as director of programming and vice-president of technical development, he supervised 4,000 software professionals spread across 15 laboratories in seven countries. 

At the SEI, Humphrey established the Software Process Program and led development of the Software Capability Maturity Model, and introduced the Software Process Assessment and Software Capability Evaluation methods. These later became the basis for the development of the Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI), a framework of software engineering best practices that have been adopted by thousands of organizations across the globe. 

Anita Carleton, director of the SEI’s Software Engineering Process Management (SEPM) Program, said Humphrey’s passion for his work influenced her decision to come to the SEI. 

“He was a wonderful leader and a wonderful man. He set forth an energizing goal and an inspiring mission that we all wanted to be a part of,” said Carleton.

“When Watts began his work, he faced his critics, but never gave up on his commitment that software development could be more effectively managed by process,” said Larry Druffel, SEI director and CEO from 1986 to 1996. “We all understood the importance of things like version control, configuration management, and methodology, but I don’t think that anyone knew how to put that into a transferable form. That’s what Watts did for the field of software engineering. There were enough people out there criticizing his approach, but he stayed with it, and he made it work.” 

After being named the first SEI Fellow—an honor given to individuals who have made an outstanding commitment to the work of the SEI—Humphrey focused on the development of the Team Software Process (TSP), an approach that teaches software engineers the skills they need to make and track plans and produce high-quality software with zero defects. TSP has been adopted by leading software organizations across the globe including Adobe, Intuit, and Oracle. In 2006, Tec de Monterrey, a leading private university in Mexico, launched a TSP initiative in partnership with the SEI to help Mexico become a better national provider of IT products and services. 

For his work in software engineering, Humphrey was awarded the 2003 National Medal of Technology which he received from President George W. Bush in a special ceremony at the White House in 2005. Humphrey is the author of 12 books on software engineering and hundreds of technical reports, journal articles, and columns. The Watts Humphrey Software Quality Institute in Chennai, India, is named after him.

Humphrey met his wife, Barbara, while working for Sylvania in Boston; they were married in 1954, and have seven children and 11 grandchildren. 

His daughter, Sarah Humphrey, recalled that when she was little, her father tried to teach all of his children how to sail. During her lesson she kept refusing to take the tiller from her father.  

“So he jumped off the boat and swam ashore. That was just great. I took the tiller,” she recalled. “He would always say ‘Never say I can’t. Say I can.’”

To read a story about Humphrey and see samples of his published work and video clips of him receiving the National Medal of Technology, visit