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.Hello up There
It makes sense. If an internal system fails, senior management probably won't hear about it. Failures are usually suppressed, rarely examined, and certainly not publicized. Okay, so someone's pager went off in the middle of the night and there were some crazy times while problems were resolved, but all in all things kept moving forward. No one keeps track of the costs of poor quality.

But for an external system, it's a completely different dynamic. A failure can cost customers and revenue, and believe me that is measured. Drop revenue or market share by a few percent and you'll have the attention of the board of directors.

What makes all this really exciting is that I've actually seen the effects start to manifest themselves. Over the past few months I've encountered an increasing number of projects, departments, and companies that are making serious commitments to quality. In one case, a brokerage firm had put a freeze on all new projects during the downturn—with one exception: test automation. Be still my heart!

Now, does this mean we can forget about quality for internal systems? Actually, no. In most cases, customer-facing systems are just front ends to the internal systems, which means their quality is inextricable. It doesn't matter how solid your Web site is if the mainframe in the back can't complete the order. The happy result is that the value of quality is increasing throughout the enterprise.

Entering the Mainstream
And just when you think you can't take any more good news, there is more. The emerging operating and development platforms are becoming more test-friendly.

In the past, test automation tools had to be developed as proprietary scripting languages that performed unnatural acts to invade the application under test. Now, new support for inter-process cooperation and communication is enabling test automation to be achieved using off-the-shelf, native programming languages and through supported interfaces.

The advantages are many. Programming languages are less expensive than scripting tools, the languages are taught in college, and there is a wider talent pool to draw from. Supported, standard interfaces mean that the scripts aren't as vulnerable to nonstandard behaviors, and they can be bought rather than built. The benefits go on.

Golden Age?
So are we entering a golden age of quality? Or is this just another mirage? What do you think?

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