Hope Happens


Quality initiatives seem to appear and disappear like mirages, depending on the business needs of the moment. But in this column, test automation expert Linda Hayes sees signs of hope: signs that companies have the motive, and the means, for more serious commitments to quality improvement. Read her reasons and see if you agree.

I have a confession to make. I have been involved with software development and especially test automation for almost two decades, and overall, what I have seen and experienced is a crying shame. Nonexistent processes, absurd schedules, iffy staffing, and cost cuts in quality. What hurts even more is that it's not because we don't know how to do it right, it's because we aren't enabled to do it. Simply put, the business decides it isn't worth the time or money.

Not that there haven't been efforts. The Deming approach, Total Quality Management, ISO 9000 certification, the SEI Capability Maturity Model, and similar programs are all laudable attempts to promote quality, but companies who even attempt them, let alone maintain them, are the exception rather than the rule.

So I have been waiting and watching for signs of a shift in the business value perception of quality, because I realized that is the only hope for true change. I'll admit to falling for a few mirages: for example, I thought Y2K would be a wake-up call. Turns out we just hit the snooze button and went back to sleep.

But guess what? It has arrived.

0 Degrees of Separation
It came disguised as a new word: disintermediation. It means removing the middleman, or the mediator. It applies, of course, to the Internet's effect on commerce by directly connecting companies and their customers.

Disintermediation is an incredibly powerful economic force because it promises—and is delivering—dramatic productivity gains and reduced transaction costs. One obvious example: travel agents are an endangered species. So, everyone is scrambling to provide direct access to their customers. In virtually every industry—financial services, travel, retail, manufacturing—companies are either busy developing or deploying customer-facing systems.

The result, of course, is that your system becomes your company as far as the customer is concerned—and sloppy quality does not lend confidence or promote loyalty—or help revenue.

0 Degrees of Friction
But wait, there's more. It turns out there is a side effect from this direct access, and it is enough to drop an economist into an ecstatic swoon: frictionless competition. In other words, if your system can't deliver, your competitors are only seconds away. Literally.

I experienced this myself at Christmas. I was doing my usual lazy, inexcusably thoughtless last-minute ordering of online gift certificates, and the site I was using crashed as I was using the payment page. I was out of there to a competitor like a shot. After I completed my purchase, I actually went back to the first site and sent an email to the webmaster pointing out the problem, hoping that prompt action would save them some money. I never went back to see if it was fixed, though, and today that company is out of business and their competitor isn't.

The combined effect of exposing systems to customers and competition is—surprise!—a different value perception of quality.

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