“Quality Software Development” is Increasingly an Oxymoron

Wikipe-tan_as_the_tooth_fairyJust how bad is the state of software development these days? It’s not just bad. It’s awful. It’s as awful as worm pizza, truck stop showers, and gangrene. It’s as bad as the Chicago White Sox hitters were in 2013 when men were in scoring position. It’s even as awful as that Robin Thicke song radio stations have played three times every hour since June. It’s an assault to all things proper and good.

Don’t take my word for it. Consider the statistics in this article, which claims that there was almost zero chance that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) website would work properly at launch. Here are some doozies:

  • “Of 3,555 projects from 2003 to 2012 that had labor costs of at least $10 million, only 6.4% were successful.”
  • 52% of these large projects went over budget.
  • The remaining 41.4% were failures: “they were either abandoned or started anew from scratch.”

That’s pretty damning. Certainly, website woes have been a goldmine for right-wingers anxious to put the stain of the shutdown they caused behind them, but the fact is that very, very few large software projects succeed at launch, and that most run well over budget.

Still, government IT projects are particularly prone to budget bloat. The contractor that was awarded the healthcare.gov project has far exceeded the $93 million budget they were granted. The US Air Force is scrapping the implementation of a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system into which it has already sunk $1 billion. The FBI recently scrapped a project it had funded for $170 million to start a new one cost $425 million. Given the odds, the new, more expensive FBI project is destined to fail, too, which probably will result in yet another and perhaps even more expensive project.

Software development is hard. It is rocket science without the rockets, brain surgery without the surgery. It has lots of moving parts, lots of competing priorities, and is performed in a kitchen overcrowded with too many cooks. It’s not a problem endemic to government, as much as government haters might want to cast it so. Look no further than Microsoft’s ridiculously flawed rollout of Windows 8.1 for a high-profile and embarrassing example of private-sector software development gone bad.

My point is this: it is going to take a while before the kinks are worked out. God Himself could have written the software, and it still would have had flaws, because every one of those 500,000 lines of code offer multiple opportunities for error. What is unfortunate is that, in my estimation, not enough time was planned between initial release and the time when penalties start to kick in for not complying. This suggests a naive trust in the abilities of software developers which, based on the statistics, is as unfounded as believing the Tooth Fairy left money under Santa Claus’s pillow whenever he lost a baby tooth.


About Ray Klump

Associate Dean, College of Aviation, Science, and Technology at Lewis University Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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