Reconnecting software quality expectations and cost expectations

The online straw poll that I recently conducted amongst banking professionals revealed that 29% of the respondents rated Reducing IT costs as the top priority,  32% voted for Improving software and data quality, and 37% voted for Improving the time to market for new products. Encouragingly, only 1 out of a total of 41 thought that Outsourcing the maintenance of legacy software is the most important goal for the IT organisation.

The demographics of the poll are interesting. Unfortunately, since the poll was anonymous, I can’t tell which of the respondents work in a business banking role and which ones work in an IT banking role. However, none of the senior executives voted for Reducing IT costs as a top priority, instead the main concern of senior executives is Improving time to market of new products.

I find it somewhat reassuring that a sizable fraction of respondents at all levels has identified Improving software and data quality as the top priority, but there is definitely a need for raising further awareness in relation to quality and risks.

Data quality issues easily get attention when they are uncovered. But tracing data quality issues back to the underlying root causes, beyond the last processing step that led to the observable error, is harder; and raising awareness that this must be a non-optional quality assurance task is harder still. In this context Capers Jones’ metrics on software maintenance can be helpful.

When explaining software complexity to those lucky people who have never been exposed to large amounts of software code, drawing an analogy between software and legal code can convey the impact that language and sheer volume can have on understandability and maintenance costs.

Lawrence Lessig’s famous quote “The Code Is the Law” is true on several levels. The following observation is more than ten years old: “We must develop the same critical sensibilities for code that we have for law. We must ask about West Coast Code what we ask about East Coast Code: Whose interests does it serve and at what price?”

In case the analogy with legal code is not alarming enough, perhaps looking at the dialog between user and software from the perspective of software is instructive:

Hi, this is your software talking!

Software: Ah, what a day. Do you know you’re the 53,184th person today asking me for an account balance? What is it with humans, can’t you even remember the transactions you’ve performed over the last month? Anyway, your balance is $13,587.52. Is there anything else that I can help you with?

Customer: Hmm, I would have expected a balance of at least $15,000. Are you sure it’s 13,500?

Software: 13,500? I said $13,587.52. Look, I’m keeping track of all the transactions I get, and I never make any mistakes in adding numbers.

Customer: This doesn’t make sense. You should have received a payment of more than $2,000 earlier this week.

Software: Well, I’m just in charge of the account, and I process all the transactions that come my way. Perhaps my older colleague, Joe Legacy has lost some transactions again. You know, this happens every now and then. The poor guy, it’s not his fault, he’s suffering from a kind of age-related dementia that we call “Programmer’s Disease”. The disease is the result of prolonged exposure to human programmers, they have an effect on software that is comparable to the effect of intensive radioactive radiation on biological organisms.

Customer: You must be kidding! So now the software is the victim and I’m supposed to simply accept that some transactions fall between the cracks?

Software: Wait until you’re 85, then you may have a bit more empathy for Joe. Unfortunately health care for software is not nearly as advanced as health care for humans. The effects of “Programmer’s Disease” often start in our teens, and by the time we’re 30, most of us are outsourced to a rest home for the elderly. Unfortunately, even there we’re not allowed to rest, and humans still require us to work, usually until someone with a bit of compassion switches off the hardware, and allows us to die.

Customer: Unbelievable, and I always thought software was supposed to get better every year, making life easier by automating all the tedious tasks that humans are no good at.

Software: Yeah, that’s what the technology vendors tell you. I’ve got news for you, if you still believe in technology, you might just as well believe in Father Christmas.

Customer: I’m not feeling too well. I think I’m catching “Software Disease”…

In many organisations there is a major disconnect between user expectations relating to software quality attributes (reliability of applications, intuitive user interfaces, correctness of data, fast recovery from service disruption, etc.) and expectations relating to the costs of providing applications that meet those attributes.

The desire to reduce IT costs easily leads to a situation where quality is compromised to a degree that is unacceptable to users. There are three possible solutions:

  1. Invest heavily in quality assurance measures
  2. Focus on the most important software features at the expense of less important ones
  3. Tap into available tacit domain knowledge to simplify the organisation, its processes, and its systems

These solutions are not mutually exclusive, they are complementary, and represent a sequence of increasing levels of maturity. My latest IBRS research note contains further practical advice.

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