Tell me three times: The importance of quality assurance

Tell me three times

The earliest military applications of quality control came about from needing to send messages with reasonable confidence. The protocol was simple: Send every message three times. This triple-redundancy provided a checksum against failure, and could be used to correct broken messages. Any difference between the three copies would usually only show up in one, so the remaining two could be treated as accurate. The incorrect third could be discarded. In time, of course, advances in technology and process made it possible to introduce far more advanced — and secure — methods of communication. But the principle still lives on today in formal quality assurance: By introducing a redundant check on a program or process, we improve our chances of success.

As an industry, software folks have invested a huge amount of time toward figuring out what goes wrong with most projects. The root cause is complexity and our ability to accurately manage that complexity. Finding a method that enables reliable and repeatable results is a tough problem, especially given the variables involved in every project: Changing business environments, customer demands, technical capability and understanding, and team makeup are just a few of the factors that affect every project in a multitude of ways.

To combat the problems of complexity different best practices have become popular — some good, and some abysmal. The more successful techniques have a common theme: The idea that we can manage all this complexity by introducing multiple checkpoints.

Quality assurance and checkpoints

This is what quality assurance and structured software testing is all about — and yet, at least in the commercial industry — there’s always pressure to cut quality assurance or testing budgets. Take, for example, a recent project that ran about 18 months, involved well over 25 people, and launched to huge success (and zero defects in the product). The immediate aftermath of this successful effort? One might imagine kudos were in order. How many times do 18-month long, multi-million dollar projects get out the door without major problems? Instead, the project sponsors criticized the cost of development and, rather arbitrarily, said the team had “spent too much on quality assurance.” The reasoning behind this was simply that, since there were no bugs in the finished product, all that money spent on quality must have been wasted.

Management then demanded the quality assurance budget be cut dramatically — In fact, insisting they would not spend another dime on quality assurance. It was one of the most counterintuitive situations I’ve ever encountered.

The unfortunate consequence of this is an antagonistic relationship between project team and project sponsor. It brings into question how much visibility the sponsor should have when it comes to internal project budgets, and that’s a dangerous line to tread. At the same time, taking the position that QA will not be funded is crossing the line between budgetary management and meddling with technical process — and in this case, a process that had worked with stellar success.

The politics of management

Visibility should not be compromised. The project sponsor needs to know where costs are, and most project sponsors are not going to be happy with a single budgetary line item for “project development.” However, it is equally important that project teams and their organizations maintain a uniform front defending what works.

Stated another way, when you have something that works, treat it as a whole product that cannot be “sliced and diced.” Software development, at least those processes that work, cannot be subject to arbitrary and partial budget cuts. Cutting just the quality assurance department alters a working process. In this case, we had an unreasonable project sponsor that was not interested in understanding the complexity of building a product.

I held a firm line with our sponsor. We could not run a project with arbitrary cuts to parts of the program. Our compromise ended well enough. I was able to tell the sponsor that we would cut the budget across the board, not just in one department. At the same time we came to a mutual understanding: The sponsor was really just concerned with the big picture, the total number of dollars spent. As such, we agreed he would not see another line item labelled “quality assurance.” Future budget reports had a single line item for the total engineering cost, all inclusive of quality-related expenses.

The team, and the project manager, need to defend a system that does a good job. The sponsor needs to be informed that budget cuts cannot arbitrarily target specific program components: Instead, the right way to tackle this problem is for the sponsor to cut the overall budget and let the project organization decide how that cut will be implemented. Most likely, cuts will need to be applied equally across the project — thereby reducing overall output, but not messing with a process that works.

Unfortunately, everyone needs to recognize that this can lead to losing a client or canceling a project. The question is, would keeping the project alive be worth the long-term headaches, knowing that cost will be a constant challenge? You might gain near-term budget cuts, but the problem will come back ten-fold when poor quality and schedule slips lead to unhappy customers.

Once you have a working program and methodology, don’t compromise on what it takes to deliver a project right. It’s better to decide it’s too expensive and walk away, rather than put everyone through the mess of a poorly run project.

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