Thursday, December 02, 2004

Don't mix software and The Economist

I started reading The Economist recently and have found it to be an interesting weekly look at what is happening in the world, providing a slightly broader view than Time or Newsweek. As a rule it tends to stick to politics and economics, though occasionally subjects on the fringe slip through. For instance a few weeks back there was a special article about outsourcing that was very interesting.

When I got my issue this week I noticed there was a special article about the software development industry entitled "Managing Complexity". I went straight to it, intrigued to see what they had to say about my "back yard". Alas the normal erudition and clarity that I have come to expect from The Economist were notable by their absence in this article.

The article began by making the point that a large proportion of software projects go seriously wrong and according to a recent study 60% are considered failures by the organizations that initiated them. So far so good. In the light of the recent Child Support Agency fiasco it is also something that I have been thinking about.

Beyond this point things start to go wrong. According to the article the problem can be summed up as follows
"The Culprit: poor design"
That's it. The article proceeds to present a peculiarly US-centric survey of trends in software development such as open-source, agile development etc. The quotes provided are from US software tool vendors, so it is unsurprising that they are in agreement that the solution to the problem is to buy the newest tools they have to offer.

I could point out the inaccuracies and fallacies in the article in great detail (and I'm sure that this would provide some catharsis for me - if you hadn't already guessed. the article touched a nerve). However I think it would be more interesting to speculate on some of the issues that the article ought to have delved into.

If I had a magic answer I would of course have become rich from this knowledge; however I think there are some clear areas that cause problems:
  • Poor management on the procurement side When an organization procures a software solution, there is some onus on them to know what they want. This may sound obvious, but I have worked on projects where a high-level management decision has been made that a group of users should use a new system that is to be developed, but when it comes down to it no one actually knows what the system is supposed to do. Large organizations often have a budget=power culture, so once the budget has been approved the procuring manager might not hang around very long, instead climbing further up the greasy pole.
  • Poor management on the vendor side Software project management is an area strewn with lots of literature (good and bad). I don't intend to repeat any of that here. However one area often overlooked is the need to manage the expectations of the procuring organization. The vendor management needs to be intimately aware of the maturity level of the procuring organization and factor this into planning. Related to this, a less mature procurer will often come up with new requirements as their understanding of what technology can offer improves during the course of the project. Vendor management has the responsibility to explain to the procurer that expanding the scope of the project by introducing the new requirements has consequences for deadlines and budgets. Note also that increasing the budget to accommodate such an expansion will inevitably be reported by the press as a budget overrun.
  • Overhyped Technology The one thing that unites otherwise warring software vendors is the claim that their new product will solve all of your development problems. This despite all previous experience to the contrary. Sometimes this overhype can get totally out of control which leads to inappropriate technology choices for a project. Witness the recent backlash against the use of EJBs.
These are the ones that occur to me straight off the top of my head. As I think of others I will add them to this list.

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