Quality Is Now Development Job One

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 iterations done when it meets the quality bar—its 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.

"Were 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.

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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 buyers terms—or to be made irrelevant by the growing alternative of free and open-source tools.

"Were 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 Americas Collectibles Network Inc. before its relaunch last year), in Knoxville, Tenn.

"Where were focused is on the integration piece," Meystrik said. "An engineer uses a set of tools—we dont want them piddling around in all kinds of other tools across the software life cycle because thats 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 dont buy a tool unless [the vendor is] willing to do that, or well go find an open-source tool that might not quite have the bells and whistles. Its absolutely the No. 1 thing that we look at."

For example, Meystrik said, "Were using Microsoft Project, but were not typing and retyping things to get them in there; were force-feeding our requirements into [Project] and automatically getting our skeleton put together. Were automatically generating change-request tickets out of every piece of software, and those are tied to source code—thats really where were 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."

Segues 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 thats attempting to standardize that integration."

Jewelry Televisions 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 companys perspective, and its all just business-driven and ROI-driven," he said. "Weve 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 Meystriks 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 segments major players, operating more than a dozen gaming and hospitality sites.

Next Page: Companies seek to shorten QA time.