SPICE serious about software processes

A group of Canadians working to introduce a higher degree of standards to the world’s software industry is warning that unless Canada starts taking the initiative more seriously it may be left behind.

The group is part of the Software Process Improvement and Capability DEtermination project — or SPICE, for short. SPICE is an international consortium founded in 1993 to help establish a set of standards for software development processes around the world.

SPICE was formed around three goals: to create a working draft for software process assessment, to conduct trials to improve the standard, and to promote the concept of software process assessment worldwide.

SPICE is now working with the International Standards Organization, and the combined effort has given birth to ISO/IEC TR 15504 – currently a technical report, but one that is two-thirds of the way to becoming a full-fledged ISO standard.

The first round of 15504 assessment was conducted by SPICE members in 1995, testing only the core concepts of the standard. A second, broader round of testing began two years later, covering more aspects of 15504 and included non-SPICE members.

Now phase three is set to begin, and SPICE is looking for volunteers in the IT community to help make 15504 even stronger. Victoria Hailey, a Toronto-based software consultant and SPICE’s regional trials coordinator for Canada and Latin America, said it’s important for both software vendors and companies that build software in-house to get involved.

“The only measure of software quality is the process by which it’s built. So if you have good software processes and consistently well-managed processes, then the likelihood of developing really good software is going to be that much higher,” she said.

What’s at stake is the corporate bottom line. A software consultant by trade, Hailey said she’s well-acquainted with the results of poor software development processes. Poor project methodology and a reluctance to consult users result in cancelled projects and buggy software, and cost companies billions each year.

“Several of the…companies that I work for, their whole business is run on software. And the downtime that they have as the result of buggy software…is pathetic.”

Ultimately, when 15504 becomes official, software developers will be able to assess their processes relative to that of their competitors, and root out any flaws in the organization, Hailey explained. And for vendors which buy software, the fact a developer has adopted 15504 is an assurance that risks have been mitigated.

This translates into competitive advantage, which is why Hailey believes it’s so important for Canadian companies to get involved. While Europe and Australia in particular have been enthusiastic about working on 15504, even funding the trials, participation in North America has been weak. Hailey said Ottawa’s focus has been primarily on IT education and training, not on improving existing resources.

And she said it’s vitally important that Canadians seize this last chance to help model a standard that they may one day be forced to adopt.

“If Canadian companies haven’t participated, haven’t influenced it, (then) I think there is a marginal disadvantage there; not just because of lack of awareness, but there are cultural biases of how things are promoted and so on. And Canadian companies have an opportunity to influence what the standard is going to say.”

Khaled El Emam, research associate with the National Research Council’s Institute of Information Technology in Ottawa and SPICE international trials coordinator, has another theory as to why North Americans haven’t been warming to 15504.

Urged on by the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S.-based Software Engineering Institute created the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) in 1987, an earlier software assessment model which helped the U.S. military select which companies to hire for software development.

Since many companies have, or would like to have, relationships with the U.S. military, CMM adoption is widespread. And El Emam said adopters of CMM don’t see the point of participating in trials for another standard. But what they don’t realize, he said, is that CMM and other standards could be used in harmony with 15504.

“(And) until the user community is convinced that they can maintain their investment in CMM while they use 15504, then you probably will have very little participation.”

What makes 15504 different is that it’s the first standard based on evidence — feedback from users who have run trials and helped the guidelines evolve. “Now, after four years, we have a good amount of evidence to show that what exists in SPICE actually works,” El Emam said.

Hailey, El Emam and several others make up the Canadian delegation of Working Group 10, the international committee dedicated to overseeing the development of 15504. The Canadian delegation works on behalf of the Standards Council of Canada, an ISO member. Roughly 700 companies worldwide participated in phase two testing, and the WG10 would like to boost that number for phase three.

If all goes according to plan, the trials will continue until 2003, with the final passing of 15504 to an official ISO standard shortly thereafter. Hailey said SPICE and 15504 are getting more attention every day, and she’s confident she can get Canadian companies to take part.

“You have to find the marketing value, and there is marketing value,” she said. “And that’s what I’m afraid of, that Canada is going to get left behind, because other countries in the world are seeing that value.”

Want to get involved?

Working Group 10 is ready to begin phase three trials of ISO/IEC TR 15504, and the Canadian delegation is actively looking for companies interested in improving the evolving standard.

“The actual effort to participate in the trials is minimal, because it’s a series of questionnaires…actually taking software improvement to heart, that’s where the work is,” Victoria Hailey said .

Though there are costs associated with doing a trial, Hailey said she can put participants in touch with qualified assessors, give them access to the earlier SPICE trials, and help them join the SPICE users group, SUGAR.

Those interested in participating in a trial should contact Hailey directly at vah@vhg.com . Further background on SPICE can be found at the SPICE home page, www.sqi.gu.edu.au/spice/index.shtml.