Quest For Quality

Improving software quality is a high priority at many companies. Why? Buggy software hurts the bottom line.

Mary Hayes Weier, Contributor

March 5, 2003

2 Min Read

VF continues to invest in automated testing tools for packaged applications as Mercury makes them available, because it's the only way the company can know how software will work in its environment without doing an actual rollout. "The best thing about packaged software is flexibility, and the worst thing about packaged software is flexibility," Koetter says. "There are thousands of ways to set up packaged software, and you have to make sure you've set it up correctly for your company."

Meanwhile, software companies have gotten serious about improving packaged apps. One of the most promising developments in the past year is the growing willingness of vendors to acknowledge that software quality is a problem. It was common to hear vendors blame quality problems on customers' inability to properly implement and use software, but vendors now realize that their responsibility for quality doesn't end once products ship. And well they should: 82% of InformationWeek survey respondents say their companies decided not to buy software from a vendor because it had a reputation for poor-quality code. And more than half say the industry is doing an unsatisfactory job ensuring that commercial software is bug-free.

Highest Hurdles

"In the past, the average developer didn't care what the customer experience was, he just cared about defects," says Alan Fletcher, VP of operations for the E-business suite-development group at Oracle. "We shifted our focus so that development is measured on customer experience." So if 20% of customers complain about performance problems with a particular module--even if there's nothing technically wrong with the code--Oracle will investigate other quality problems besides bugs. In such a case, Fletcher says, maybe the software is too difficult to implement, resulting in poor implementations and, ultimately, substandard performance.

Oracle also has increased its focus on finding software defects earlier in the development cycle, Fletcher says. For one, it has developed a formal methodology that its 5,000 engineers must follow, including standard terms and phrases and a set of metrics used to measure the effectiveness of the processes in place. A new site on the company's intranet serves as the main collaboration center for engineers, letting them track the business requirements for the software they're developing and manage development cycles, among other things. Previously, development status was sent via E-mail.

Collaboration among software vendors and users also is on the upswing. The Sustainable Computing Consortium, launched last year by Carnegie Mellon University to develop standards for software quality, is up to 45 member companies, including FedEx, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Mellon Financial, Microsoft, and Oracle. Member companies recently met in Phoenix to develop working committees.

As these companies recognize, software quality can't be ignored. The industry is young compared with most others, and many believe its growth will be stunted without better standards and processes around quality.

Illustration by Felix Sockwell

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