Quality Is Now Development Job One
By: Peter Coffee
Tech Analysis: Vendors and IT architects agree that quality trumps time to market.
Quality, not time, has become the critical unit of measure in software development. Microsoft Corp. became a poster child for that doctrine when it announced Nov. 29 that it would start releasing Vista previews based on meeting quality milestones rather than hewing to monthly dates.
The quest-for-quality philosophy had been articulated one week earlier, however, during a roundtable discussion of application life-cycle quality goals and practices convened by eWEEK Labs. The group comprised representatives from quality tool vendors, platform provider and toolmaker Microsoft, and customers of those vendors.
Massive releases with dozens of features invite teams to settle for thresholds such as "90 percent complete" as defining software readiness. As teams adopt shorter cycles, however, it gets harder to bury a defect under the sheer bulk of a new-feature list.
"I know that my iteration's done when it meets the quality bar—it's becoming the key project management metric," Ian McLeod, senior vice president for products at Segue Software Inc. in Lexington, Mass., said during the eWEEK conference call.
Other roundtable participants agreed with McLeod that quality tops their lists of development goals—and emphasized that the scope of the "Q" word includes not only accurate implementation of specifications but also the much broader need for satisfaction of user expectations in the field.
The scope and nature of the QA (quality assurance) task are further broadening as organizations rely on purchased software and network-based services as components of line-of-business applications.
"We're using more and more a component architecture, which means more complexity as applications become more distributed, more loosely coupled and more prone to changes by each of those components' providers," said Eldad Maniv, vice president for product management at Identify Software Ltd., in New York.
Enterprise buyers recognize that software quality is not a mere question of containing the chaos, but rather represents an important opportunity for competitive advantage with strong returns on investment.
Moreover, companies are not waiting for vendors to come to them with turnkey quality solutions; they are writing their own agendas for QA technology and inviting vendors to contribute on the buyer's terms—or to be made irrelevant by the growing alternative of free and open-source tools.
"We're working on a concept that we call the fully connected life-cycle tool bench," said Chris Meystrik, director of software engineering at television and Web retailer Jewelry Television (formerly America's Collectibles Network Inc. before its relaunch last year), in Knoxville, Tenn.
"Where we're focused is on the integration piece," Meystrik said. "An engineer uses a set of tools—we don't want them piddling around in all kinds of other tools across the software life cycle because that's really defocusing and makes them inefficient."
A vendor need not bother pitching Meystrik any tool that does not offer APIs to its functions. In fact, Meystrik called open-tool APIs "absolutely critical," adding, "We don't buy a tool unless [the vendor is] willing to do that, or we'll go find an open-source tool that might not quite have the bells and whistles. It's absolutely the No. 1 thing that we look at."
For example, Meystrik said, "We're using Microsoft Project, but we're not typing and retyping things to get them in there; we're force-feeding our requirements into [Project] and automatically getting our skeleton put together. We're automatically generating change-request tickets out of every piece of software, and those are tied to source code—that's really where we're going."
The result, Meystrik said, is an environment in which relevant information can be brought to his engineers where they can readily apply it. "[The engineers are] in Eclipse," he said. "They need a perspective of what requirements look like; they might want to see what kind of test plans have failed—but they want that brought to them in the tool that they use."
Segue's McLeod said he hopes to see a more comprehensive, industrywide embrace of tool integration.
"Quality is all the elements of the ecosystem—requirements, development and test management, defect management, monitoring, and diagnostics across the deployment line and into operations. You mostly see point-to-point integrations, with the familiar problems of configuration control of the interfaces, alignment of data format, agreement on common repositories," he said. "Some initiatives are out there, such as the application life-cycle framework project, which is a relatively new project within Eclipse that's attempting to standardize that integration."
Jewelry Television's Meystrik said he is confident in the returns that his efforts are yielding. "The addressing of these software quality issues is a significant strategic investment, from our company's perspective, and it's all just business-driven and ROI-driven," he said. "We've proven over the last year how implementation of these ideas and concepts has driven straight to the bottom line, and the company sees that at the highest levels."
The rapid pace of Meystrik's TV and online retail environment is matched by few other business segments, but one of those few is Las Vegas gaming. Station Casinos Inc. is one of that segment's major players, operating more than a dozen gaming and hospitality sites.
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