by Kennedy Smith
Software bugs cost the U.S. economy an estimated $59.5
billion each year, and more than half of that cost is shouldered
by the end-user, according to a 2002 study from the National
Institute of Standards and Technology.
The cost of failed projects for the U.S. information technology
industry in 2000 was estimated at $84 billion, reports The
Founded in 1976 by James H. Goodnight,
SAS (www.sas.com) develops business intelligence software
that serves more than 40,000 businesses, government
agencies and educational organizations in 118 countries.
Among other awards, SAS was chosen as one of FORTUNE
magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work for in
America" in 2003.
In the following interview, Cynthia Morris, SAS's
research and development director in charge of software
quality, discusses how the company integrates quality
throughout the product life cycle. Morris, who has
been with the company for 12 years, leads three groups
at SAS: Tools and Infrastructure, Testing Integration,
and Process and Research.
QD: How does quality come into play
in the process of developing your software?
Morris: It starts with our employees;
they're qualified and loyal. We have a very low turnover
rate because of our environment; satisfied employees
create satisfied customers.
Infrastructures are in place to support quality--like
R&D trainers to educate new hires in our internal
processes and technologies. We organize so that the
testers and developers are sitting side by side, working
together to create a quality product. Also, we try
to get the technical support team and the marketing
strategists located nearby or at least promote interaction
to ensure that the right products are delivered. We
have internal tools to help the developers and testers
work seamlessly along with automated internal reports
to track the release progress. We use quality management
systems to document our processes and create a model,
which helps us develop and sustain repeatable processes.
QD: How has the software quality
process changed in the decade that you've been with
Morris: The awareness that quality
is the responsibility of everyone working on the software
project now permeates the organization. We're using
complete data to inform the team and management about
the quality status. It's on our internal Web so every
employee has access to it. And we're open to new models,
such as prototyping and peer programming. During the
past several years, we've been using more tools to
help us automate reports and tests.
QD: How involved is top management
in the quality process?
Morris: Top management sees it as
a priority. Jim Goodnight, our CEO, is a programmer
himself. He understands the need to have a quality
system. Like Goodnight, our CTO Keith Collins understands
the value of a quality system. He wants to be proud--we
want to be proud--of what we deliver.
Just this week [Goodnight] hosted an internal Webcast,
and he was talking about how he really enjoys programming
and wishes he had more time to do it. He's a man who
understands what programmers have to go through, and
he's also focused on quality. So, quality does come
from the top down as well as the bottom up.
Because we lease our software on a yearly basis,
we have to continuously prove quality to our customers.
That focuses the minds of the developers and sales
force to make sure we're always meeting customer needs
and delivering quality goods because the customer
can decide, "No, thank you. We want to go somewhere
QD: How are defects handled at SAS?
Morris: When customers report a
defect, we mark it as such: a customer-reported problem.
We have reports that highlight the customer-reported
problems to ensure that we address them. The SAS User
Group International conference provides a forum where
developers can talk to customers directly. Ballots
are sent to the customers so we can find out what
they'd like us to improve upon--what their top issues
and feature requests are. We address something from
that ballot every year.
We evaluate our key quality milestones for every
release and determine whether we've met our objectives.
If we haven't, we make hard decisions about cutting
certain features, delaying the schedule, or a combination
of both to ensure a quality product.
QD: What quality improvement suggestions
would you give to software companies that aren't implementing
a quality initiative?
Morris: Metrics are critical to
increase understanding of how their software compares
with what the customer wants and needs and to really
find out where their quality stands. They should hire
people that have quality experience to implement quality
processes. It's a big task. There are lots of measurements,
lots of good practices available, but it does take
time to incorporate them into the fabric of any software
Communication is key. You have to have good communication
with your customers as well as good communication
within R&D, marketing and throughout the company.
QD: What is your opinion of the
state of quality in software?
Morris: The pressure of having superior
quality while getting to the marketplace in a timely
manner continues to increase. Software product complexity
and operating system interdependence continue to grow.
At the same time, these trends provide us with more
data and better processes and tools to help us with
those challenges. Software quality is growing in maturity,
and it will continue to get better and better. Customers
IEEE Software Magazine reports that the best commercial
software companies remove about 95 percent of all known
defects before releasing a product to the customer. However,
the industry average is less than 85 percent.
Watts Humphrey of Carnegie Mellon University's Software
Engineering Institute estimates that for every 1,000 lines
of code that software professionals create, there are about
The Standish Group's Software Chaos report states that
the software performance success rate is about 30 percent,
and runaway and failed projects are common.
If these statistics regarding the quality of software
don't make you cringe, you must have never used a computer.
Surely everyone who has can relate a story about how software
bugs have affected his or her work. Your computer locked
up before you had a chance to save that important report;
your Web page was down and you couldn't figure out why;
you called tech support to report a problem only to have
them tell you, "We're already aware of that defect,
and you owe us $35 for the phone call." But can the
state of quality in software really be as bad as the statistics
suggest? And if so, what can software development companies
do about it? This article will attempt to answer these questions.
What is the state of software quality today? It really
depends on whom you ask. Various reports surface every year
or so that attempt to explain where the United States stands
in terms of software quality, but there seem to be as many
opinions as there are experts on the subject.
"There's been some improvement in software quality
over the years," explains Herb Krasner, founder of
the Software Quality Institute at the University of Texas.
"About five years ago, The Standish Group was reporting
that the software project performance success rate was about
25 percent, meaning that 75 percent of all software projects
that were undertaken were ultimately unsuccessful. Today,
it's up to 30 percent; so yes, there is slight improvement."
Carolyn Fairbank, CEO of the Quality Assurance Institute,
believes that software quality will remain below par until
organizations restructure their thinking to be based not
upon deadlines, but upon good processes. "We're far
too focused on product delivery, not process capability,"
she argues. "We're too busy trying to get the product
out the door. Granted, this is a market-driven phenomenon,
but we'll have to change that deadline-driven attitude to
one of good processes. If you get the process right, the
product will have a far better chance at success. Unfortunately,
many IT professionals still don't quite understand the concept
of process management."
"In the beginning of a new technology's life cycle,
there's a time when it's really exciting but crappy in terms
of quality," explains Mark Minasi, technology writer
and author of several books on software, including The Software
Conspiracy: Why Software Companies Put Out Faulty Products,
How They Can Hurt You, and What You Can Do About It (McGraw-Hill
Trade, 1999). "We've been in the software business
around 55 years, and by now we should be in the part of
the life cycle where quality becomes important. I like to
ask people, 'How would you feel if Interstate 95 was completely
computerized and a Pentium 4 was running it?' They all say,
'I'd never get on that.' We don't trust software, and it's
a terrible shame."
Experts cite several reasons software companies excuse
themselves from investing more heavily in quality practices:
"Our customers aren't complaining; therefore they're
satisfied." That's wrong, says Fairbank. On the contrary,
customers feel that they have no other choice but to put
up with defective software, so they don't bother complaining.
In other words, the public has become used to poor-quality
software. However, Fairbank warns companies against this
"like it or leave it" mentality. "In the
beginning, if you wanted a desktop you either went with
Apple or Microsoft," she explains. "But, during
the last several years, new operating systems like Linux
have emerged, which is giving some of the larger companies
a run for their money. Customers are slowly starting to
realize that they really do have alternatives and, more
important, they have legal recourse."
"We've tried quality and we didn't see any results."
Like all quality initiatives, results aren't always immediately
noticeable--it's what Fairbank refers to as the software
industry's tendency to be instant gratification-oriented.
"The improvement I see with companies that invest
in software quality is 10 times, easily," adds Krasner.
"There's a lag time between the investment and the
payoff, and it varies by organizational size. So, once you
get them to invest in improving the quality, management
has to be patient enough to wait to see the return on the
"Our customers want new features, not better quality."
This is another misconception, say the experts. "Marketing
is constantly saying, 'It's got to have new features; otherwise
we can't compete,' " says Minasi. "We need to
convince software vendors that it's perfectly OK to spend
less time on features and more time on quality. Who really
needs Mongolian character sets? If you want to sell me your
newest version, make it crash-proof."
"In order to get the product out in a timely manner,
we must sacrifice some quality." Software development
is a time-to-market industry, which may cause some vendors
to assume this attitude. "Software vendors would like
to provide a quality product, but they've got to get it
out to market before someone down the street does,"
explains Fairbank. "We've accelerated our time-to-market
by leaps and bounds, but that doesn't mean quality has improved.
In fact, the companies that don't have quality processes
in place are the ones that have trouble getting a product
out to market in the speed at which it needs to be delivered."
Minasi describes it as the "iron triangle":
You can have it fast; you can have it cheap; you can have
it good. Sounds nice, but the customer is only allowed to
pick two. "Software vendors think that customers will
choose fast and cheap," he says.
"Top management doesn't care about quality." Yes,
they do. However, those who pitch quality to top management
must explain it in terms they understand: What is the cost
of poor-quality software?
"It's impossible to create low-defect software; by
nature, software contains bugs." The experts disagree.
Software development companies that don't use quality processes
have high chances of creating bug-ridden software simply
because they're starting from scratch every time they develop
something new, explains Minasi. As an example, he compares
software companies' processes to The Boeing Co.'s. A significant
portion of new product development at Boeing lies within
the development and testing phases. Not one part is built
before it's been tested in theory and on paper. This way,
Boeing can be almost 100-percent sure that the product will
work even before they've built it.
In contrast, many software makers create a new program
and then test it for defects, leaving them prone to mistakes.
Another problem experts cite is that software companies
are often immune to the consequences of their poor-quality
product. "With some exceptions, software companies
have been shielded from litigation for years," explains
Fairbank. "The customer will one day say, 'We're fed
up with this, so we're not buying your product anymore.'
When companies take the fall from either litigation or financial
disaster, we'll start to see an accelerated trend toward
The tricky part, however, is convincing software companies
that it's in their best interest to invest in quality now.
This involves showing top management the bottom-line results
and making a culture change toward quality throughout the
entire organization. It also means teaching software development
companies about the various methods of attaining that goal.
There are several approaches a software developer can
take when implementing quality practices. Krasner has developed
an approach called the "cost of software quality,"
which outlines the economic benefits of delivering good
quality software. The cost of quality approach has long
been used in the manufacturing industry, and Krasner has
expanded on that idea to include software development.
CoSQ defines key dimensions of software quality, including
the level of customer satisfaction; the degree to which
software has value for its stakeholders; key attributes
such as reliability, usability and maintainability; the
degree to which a software product is defective and the
implementation of quality processes. (See page 34.)
In his report, "Using the Cost of Quality Approach
for Software," Krasner explains that companies need
to answer three questions: How much does poor software quality
cost? How much does good software quality cost? How good
is our software quality? Once these questions are answered,
the software providers can compare quality costs to overall
software production costs and software profits, compare
quality costs to benchmarks and norms, better analyze product
quality to improve their competitive situation, measure
improvement actions and bottom-line effect of quality programs,
visibly see previously hidden costs related to poor quality,
and more clearly see the economic tradeoffs involved with
"By putting the cost of quality model into action
in an organization, what immediately becomes obvious to
management and the executives is the amount of money they're
losing on fixing bugs and delivering poor-quality products,"
comments Krasner. "They were never able to quantify
that before, so they could only guess about how it was affecting
their bottom line. The cost of quality model gives them
results in a form that they understand: dollars."
Another approach to software quality improvement is the
Capability Maturity Model. The Carnegie Mellon Software
Engineering Institute, which developed the CMM, describes
it as the outline of the principles of software process
maturity that assists software organizations in improving
their software processes in terms of product evolution.
It comprises five maturity levels (This information can
be found at the SEI Web site: www.sei.cmu.edu):
Initial. The software is characterized as specialized
(ad hoc) and, occasionally, even chaotic. Few processes
are defined and success depends on individual effort.
Repeatable. Basic project management processes
are established to track cost, schedule and functionality.
The necessary process discipline is in place to repeat earlier
successes on projects with similar applications.
Defined. The software process for both management
and engineering activities is documented, standardized and
integrated into a standard software process for the organization.
All projects use an approved, tailored version of the organization's
standard software process for developing and maintaining
Managed. Detailed measures of the software process
and product quality are collected. Both the software process
and products are quantitatively understood and controlled.
Optimizing. Continuous process improvement is enabled
by quantitative feedback from the process and from piloting
innovative ideas and technologies.
The CMM contends that as an organization moves up these
five levels, the results are predictability, effectiveness
and control of the organization's software.
Other ways to systematically improve software quality
are through established standards. The Institute of Electrical
and Electronics Engineers produces more than 30 percent
of the world's published literature in electrical engineering,
computers and control technology. This includes more than
40 standards related to engineering terminology, process
documentation, quality tools, project management, safety,
dependability and other software quality issues. To learn
more about specific IEEE standards, visit http:/href="http://qualitydigest.com/standards/index.lasso".ieee.org/software.
The International Organization for Standardization also
develops specific standards related to information technology
and software engineering, including software testing requirements,
software product evaluation, software process assessment
and others. A complete list of software-related ISO standards
is available at www.iso.org.
Although they differ about the state of quality in software
today, experts agree that it will continue to improve. Minasi
believes that as software developers realize that there
are only so many special features they can add, the focus
will move toward quality. "Once quality becomes a perceived
possibility, once it becomes something you can buy, people
will upgrade to that system," he suggests.
Fairbank says that software companies can improve quality
by adopting an enterprisewide quality culture. "There
are small things an organization can do to make an immediate
bottom-line improvement," she states. "But, instilling
the philosophies of quality into an organization takes a
culture change that doesn't happen overnight. The ones that
stay in it for the long haul have seen tremendous results
via improved customer satisfaction, outstanding products
and services, heightened employee morale, and substantial
Krasner sees a slow but steady trend toward quality. "In
10 years, instead of a 30-percent success rate on our software
projects, I hope we'll have a 75-percent success rate,"
he says. "My hope is that instead of losing about $60
billion a year because of software quality problems, we'll
only be losing $30 billion."
He also agrees with Fairbank that a culture change is
needed. "The catalyst for change is re-educating people
who are in decision-making positions to understand that
quality methods are good for business. We've educated the
developers and the project managers, and they understand
why quality is important. Now it's time to prove it to the
people above them."
Kennedy Smith is Quality Digest's associate editor. Letters
to the editor regarding this article can be sent to email@example.com.