At West Bend Mutual Insurance Co., the list of job responsibilities for software developers has grown in recent months. In addition to creating applications that perform well and meet users' needs, developers must now use standard terms and templates, follow a new project-management methodology, learn to use tools that track defects, and study a slew of new guidelines for various stages of the development process.
It has required a huge commitment in time and a pretty penny in consulting fees. But the IT department's overhaul of its software quality-assurance program is necessary if it's to effectively serve the business as it moves more processes to the Web, says Amy Buechel, VP of IT business solutions. "Many IT departments are under budget constraints, and a short-sighted department probably wouldn't think this approach is realistic," Buechel says. "It's a commitment, but when you invest for the long term there can be short-term pain."
Buechel is far from alone on her stand against poor-quality software. In a survey of 250 business-technology professionals conducted by InformationWeek Research in April, 39% say that improving the quality of software is a high priority at their companies; half name it somewhat of a priority. Only 10% call it a low priority. That's because poor software, whether it's developed internally or purchased from a vendor, directly hurts the business. Nearly half of survey respondents say software bugs or errors have led to higher costs, and more than one-third say these bugs have led to both higher costs and lost revenue.
Companies are taking a variety of approaches to address software quality, but nearly all require focusing on quality issues far earlier in software- or product-development cycles than what's been typical. Among InformationWeek survey respondents, more than half say their organizations have changed the development processes for in-house-developed software within the past 12 months to focus more on early detection of glitches, coding errors, and other flaws. And for packaged applications, some companies are spending more time to assess and test how those systems will perform once they're integrated into a company's existing IT infrastructure.
At West Bend, the changes to quality management have even extended to a pretest process. The company uses a new methodology from Compuware Corp., called Compuware application reliability solution, that lets developers assess the risk to the business of a particular application's failure, how much risk can be tolerated, and how much testing is needed to achieve that tolerance level. Test strategies and plans are then developed based on the risk assessment.
West Bend is using its more formalized development and testing procedures for a new Web application, due in July, that will automate tasks previously performed by clerical workers for insurance claims adjusters. To get an idea of how much time West Bend has spent on the process, Buechel makes a "conservative" estimate of 18 months of training for developers, and she says the training isn't over yet. It's those types of realities that may keep some companies from deploying a more formal testing process: One-third of respondents to InformationWeek's survey say cost is a significant barrier to improving the quality of their organization's software, but twice as many say lack of time is a deterrent.
Still, those who've invested in more-thorough methods that spotlight quality earlier in the development process say they're developing software faster and more efficiently and, according to 62% of survey respondents, they're increasing staff productivity. That's one reason L-3 Communication Systems, a developer of secure telecommunication systems for the military and commercial businesses, uses tools from MKS Inc. for testing and managing source code for devices such as spy-resistant military cell phones.