Software Quality at Top Speed

Projects that are in a hurry are particularly vulnerable to shortchanging quality-assurance at the individual-developer level. Any developer who has been pushed to ship a product quickly knows how much pressure there can be to cut corners because “we’re only three weeks from shipping.” For example, rather than writing a separate, completely clean printing module, you might piggyback printing onto the screen-display module. You know that’s a bad design, that it isn’t extendible or maintainable, but you don’t have time to do it right. You’re being pressured to get the product done, so you feel compelled to take the shortcut.

Two months later, the product still hasn’t shipped, and those cut corners come back to haunt you. You find that users are unhappy with printing, and the only way to satisfy their requests is to significantly extend the printing functionality. Unfortunately, in the two months since you piggybacked printing onto the screen-display module, the printing functionality and the screen-display functionality have become thoroughly intertwined. Redesigning printing and separating it from the screen display is now a tough, time-consuming, error-prone operation.

One aspect of quality assurance that’s particularly important to rapid development is the existence of error-prone modules, which are modules that are responsible for a disproportionate number of defects. Barry Boehm reported that 20 percent of the modules in a program are typically responsible for 80 percent of the errors.5 On its IMS project, IBM found that 57 percent of the errors clumped into 7 percent of the modules.1

Modules with such high defect rates are more expensive and time-consuming to deliver than less error-prone modules. Normal modules cost about $500 to $1000 per function point to develop. Error-prone modules cost about $2000 to $4000 per function point to develop.2 Error-prone modules tend to be more complex than other modules in the system, less structured, and unusually large. They often were developed under excessive schedule pressure and were not fully tested.

If development speed is important, make identification and redesign of error-prone modules a priority. Once a module’s error rate hits about 10 defects per thousand lines of code, review it to determine whether it should be redesigned or reimplemented. If it’s poorly structured, excessively complex, or excessively long, redesign the module and reimplement it from the ground up. You’ll shorten the schedule and improve the quality of your product at the same time.

The most common quality-assurance practice is undoubtedly execution testing, finding errors by executing a program and seeing what happens. The two basic kinds of execution testing are unit tests, in which the developer checks his or her own code to verify that it works correctly, and system tests, in which an independent tester checks to see whether the system operates as expected.

Testing is the black sheep of QA practices as far as development speed is concerned. It can certainly be done so clumsily that it slows down the development schedule, but most often its effect on the schedule is only indirect. Testing discovers that the product’s quality is too low for it to be released, and the product has to be delayed until it can be improved. Testing thus becomes the messenger that delivers bad news.

The best way to leverage testing from a rapid-development viewpoint is to plan ahead for bad news–set up testing so that if there’s bad news to deliver, testing will deliver it as early as possible.

Technical reviews include all the kinds of reviews that are used to detect defects in requirements, design, code, test cases, and other work products. Reviews vary in level of formality and effectiveness, and they play a more critical role in maximizing development speed than testing does.

The least formal and most common kind of review is the walkthrough, which is any meeting at which two or more developers review technical work with the purpose of improving its quality. Walkthroughs are useful to rapid development because you can use them to detect defects earlier than you can with testing.

Code reading is a somewhat more formal review process than a walkthrough but nominally applies only to code. In code reading, the author of the code hands out source listings to two or more reviewers. The reviewers read the code and report any errors to the code’s author. A study at NASA’s Software Engineering Laboratory found that code reading detected about twice as many defects per hour of effort as testing (Card 1987). That suggests that, on a rapid-development project, some combination of code reading and testing would be more schedule-effective than testing alone.

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