Software Process Improvement Essentials

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Many technology company leaders may be overlooking one very effective approach for optimizing the quality and effectiveness of their solutions and services -- and improving the company's bottom line. The investment of a little commitment and patience at the executive level can go a long way toward enhancing a company's software development process.

There is significant business value in operational improvement. Although this has been in question for many years, if not decades, you can achieve optimized operations and improved profitability if you fully explore your available options, gain buy-in from executives and other stakeholders, and apply the right mix of quality principle, operational method, and improvement technique for the project.

Exploring your options

The variety of models and methodologies that can have a profound effect on business is wider than many organizational leaders realize. Few take the time to consider all of the suitable options first, simply plugging a system into place and expecting results.

Exerting some effort into investigating this field -- and keeping an open mind -- is really the key to accomplishing their objective. You must understand that there is not one best approach and explore all of your available options before jumping into a process improvement initiative.

In addition, the models that are implemented often receive little or no revision to fit the individual needs of the organization, and too often there is not proper follow-up during the course of a project. The result is teams of engineers and researchers who are hamstrung by an unwieldy set of guidelines and beset by low morale. It gives even a successful outcome a bitter image. This can be prevented with the appropriate consideration and planning at the outset.

The right mix

Once you have explored your options, the first step in approaching a software process improvement initiative in order to realize the greatest outcome is to identify the right mix of:

  • quality principle
  • operational method
  • improvement technique

It might be helpful to consider the following analogy: in many cases, it's not a question of which apple we like better. It's about which apple and which nuts we like and how we can put them together to make a Waldorf salad.

Blending these elements effectively requires an executive to know not only how the CMMI principle, Agile method, and Six Sigma technique work, for example, but how they can work together. They also must consider what viable options exist that might be a more suitable fit for a particular project.

There is of lot of information out there, but the challenge is uncovering the good, reliable resources. There are books, seminars, and consultants out there who can help to show project leaders and executives that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Gain buy-in

A delicate balance must be struck between recognizing the unique challenges faced by each department involved in the software development process and keeping disparate corners of the company within bounds. It is critical for every division working on the project to be committed to the ideals behind software process improvement.

Project leaders can advocate and support joint efforts across the organizational levels. The executive role in ensuring that all stakeholders are invested in improvement initiatives is a key element. Another approach that executives can take to ensure the best possible outcome for these types of projects is laying out a plan that is long on financial goals but short on technological promises.

Business objectives may well be an excellent place to put in something that says the company plans to speed its response to the customer, for example. Perhaps, then, some specific ways for making this happen can be left to the project objectives.

This doesn't mean that customer demands and software process improvement are mutually exclusive. In fact, it can be quite the contrary, particularly as IT companies shift their focus.

Part of the challenge for software process improvement professionals lies in convincing executives that these efforts are worth their time and money. A lot of people believe that IT has no return investment. This is about to change.

A time of transition

The unprecedented growth and reach of the World Wide Web combined with the advent of low-cost personal computers has led to a revolution and ever-more widespread understanding of technology. The money being made online is no happenstance.

We are at the cusp of an important transition. More and more people and businesses are realizing that information technology can be profitable, and what follows is acceptance of the fundamentals of software process improvement. As executives embrace software process improvement, they must use their leadership skills to properly delegate and effectively regulate the flow of work.

Making systems that are already in place work better, faster, and more efficiently is an issue of increasing importance across many industries. In our IT community, we often find that the amount of development done as a community is getting smaller and smaller…and then you open the door to the every-increasing challenge of keeping everything running and maintaining satisfied and loyal customers.

About the Authors

As director of special programs at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute, Mike Phillips is responsible for leading the CMM Integration workforce in developing, maturing, and deploying the CMMI Product Suite to government and industry organizations.

More by Mike Phillips

David Rico is a software process improvement and technology consultant specializing in cost, benefit, and return-on-investment analysis for a variety of government and corporate entities. He has been in the field of computer programming since 1983, serves as an international keynote speaker and lecturer, and is a well-published author.

More by David Rico

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