The latest .Net Rocks podcast was from a panel at TechEd 2008 (that I sadly missed while there). Richard Campbell was the moderator and the topic was Software Quality. It was a good, if somewhat one-sided discussion and I recommend giving it a listen if you are so inclined.
I particularly liked Billy Hollis' perspective on quality because it was a perspective that was grounded in both reality and sound business principles. He kept bringing up quality in terms of trade-offs and the others kept trying to waltz around those comments with a more absolutist, almost dogmatic, vision of software quality. I think it was a real shame that Billy Hollis was so out numbered because his points are important if we are to gain the stature we desire as a profession.
The final comments completely got on my nerves. Which is fortunate because it helped crystallize my discomfort with the others.
Billy Hollis started off with this simple statement.
My key insight that I try to communicate is it’s all a matter of trade-offs. And getting to what the user needs is first and quality is defined within that context.
To which Neil Roodyn responded.
I’ll disagree. It’s about quality. You’ve got to get your quality as high as you possibly can. Always. The higher the quality of the software, the higher the quality the software will remain through the development life cycle. So right from iteration zero keep that quality as high as you possibly can.
And Jeffrey Palermo added.
The higher the quality the better. You can’t have too high of quality, you would just say you have too much behavior for the situation.
The thing is that Hollis is right and the other two are not only wrong, but dangerously wrong. Other members of the panel (David Platt and Neelesh Kamkolkar) didn’t support Hollis either, though they weren’t as overt as Roodyn and Palermo.
What Are You Trading?
The thing is that software quality, besides being pretty much impossible to measure, isn’t a first-order good in the first place—i.e. it isn’t valuable in and of itself and delivers what value it adds indirectly. You can make the reality of this simple business fact plain by pointing out how the deciding factor between two competing products is often not quality. Betamax anyone? Rolls-Royce? Sun Microsystems?
People choose software for a lot of different reasons and those reasons are very rarely explicitly the “quality” of the software. Price, availability, familiarity, and usability all play roles in the purchase (or use/approval if internal) of software and these factors need to be kept in mind. It could be that it is better for your company to have software that is harder to maintain but completed two months earlier. I do this all the time because I have lots of projects that are single-use and with a restricted domain.
Software development involves time, money, commitment, and concentration. Spending those valuable resources should be done carefully and be based on actual value to the company. Quality has a cost. Quality doesn’t always have a pay-off. Business people have a term for a cost that doesn’t return a pay-off. That term is usually “good bye”.
So Palermo and Roodyn are wrong, but why are they dangerous? This comes back to my observations during the dot com bust. I observed the glee in putting IT back in its place. You see, during that whole tech bubble IT got arrogant. Technical folks were wagging the business dog, dictating strategy, policies, spending, and sometimes even remapping the boardroom to their liking. Which would have been fine if the business rules really had changed as some thought. Unfortunately, they hadn’t. This arrogance set the entire profession back because business leaders learned not only of our arrogance, but of our ignorance as well.
We don’t bother learning even basic business principles before we make important, even critical, business decisions. This discussion of quality is an example of just such thinking. Roodyn and Palermo are talking about dictating business resources without any concern for accommodating business realities. Worse, they don’t seem interested in even learning about or exploring the business realities they, of necessity, work under.
As much as we might like the universe to bend to our personal theories and values, the fact of the matter remains that there are a lot of reasons to compromise aesthetical purity when the rubber meets the road. Those reasons don’t simply go away just because they make us uncomfortable. Indeed, how we react to the inevitable trade-offs required will largely determine how much business leaders decide to trust us in the future.
Here’s a helpful exercise. Imagine you are a business leader evaluating which company to hire to solve some software need. As part of your vetting process, you ask two finalists their stance on software quality. The first one answers with “Getting you the things you need is our first priority and quality will be defined in that context.” The second one answers with “Quality is number one. Always. Quality cannot be too high though it could be that you want too much behavior for the situation.” Which would you hire? If you answered the second, it is because of ideological blindness. Actual business leaders will not only tend to go with the first, but will have confidence and trust in doing so.
Are You Agile?
A lot of the value in IT comes from giving businesses flexibility. Processes that used to take indoctrinating a new generation of workers can now turn on a software release. While this is both a blessing and a curse for businesses, it remains a key to our value in IT. Businesses have learned to be wary of our use of resources, however, and with some cause. It is unfortunate that they cannot trust IT, but until we let the needs of the business drive our development I’d say that their trust hasn’t yet been earned. If we really want to be masters of our own fate, we must learn to live in the messy world of business. We can only do so by proving that we will use the flexibility inherent in our profession wisely.