If you thought you could take software quality for granted, think again. According to one expert, the software industry has a history of launching products before they are fully debugged. As a general practice, software companies release a product once it reaches 80 per cent functionality, said independent analyst Warren Shiau.

That’s not altogether unacceptable, he said. “The complexity of the software is such that it’s unrealistic to expect it to be released completely bug-free.”

Still, there are limits. If companies continuously release faulty software, they should not be surprised if they lose customers, he said.

Here’s a look at what one software firm does to ensure its products work as well as advertised. According to Cynthia Morris, there’s an indisputable link between software quality and the level of confidence customers have in a vendor. Morris is research and development director at Cary, N.C.-based SAS Institute Inc.

She said SAS Institute’s quality control processes kick in at the design stage and stay on until the product is ready to be shipped. Testers and developers, she said, work closely together in the early stages of development.

“We have testers within each division and they report to either a testing manager or testing director, who [in turn] reports to a division head independent from the product group,” she said. Developers are expected to perform unit testing and once they are satisfied, they pass the product on to the testers for further scrutiny.

According to Morris, SAS implements a multiple sign-off matrix. Everyone interacting with the product, from the test manager to the tech writer, signs off when they are satisfied. The product only ships after all the signoffs are completed.

She described the company’s comprehensive internal defect monitoring system. When someone along the development line notes a defect, she said, SAS’s test team determines its priority. If the flaw is listed as an “alert” priority, the developer, tester and tech support person are notified. They discuss the source of the flaw, and whether it will pose problems to customers as they use the software. “If it (needs to be fixed), we hold up the release of the product,” Morris said, adding that this is a practice established by SAS’s CEO James Goodnight.

According to Morris, proof that this system really works can be found in the fact that 98 per cent of SAS’s customers renew their licences each year.

Morris said there need not be a conflict between meeting deadlines and achieving exceptional software quality. The trick, she said, is achieving a balance between the two. She said SAS achieves that balance through ongoing communication between its marketing and product development teams. These discussions determine what can be realistically achieved within the time set.

A Canadian software quality expert agrees that realistic development timelines are absolutely vital to proper quality control. “People involved in driving quality need to [also] be involved in defining reasonable timelines to deliver the quality levels expected,” said Robert Koblovsky, vice-president of Ottawa-based Data Kinetics Ltd. (DKL).

Affiliated with the Quality Assurance Institute in Orlando, Fla., DKL provides software quality training.

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