Talk About Quality

Tom Harris

Product Quality: 3-in-1

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It’s pretty well known that there are three ways to improve software quality: improve process, improve methods, and improve tools. But these are the generic concepts — applicable to any software development effort. Today’s topic is more specific and closer to home. Product quality.

Isn’t it obvious? The software product is the running software, and product quality is how well it meets its requirements. Simply put — does it do what people expect it to do, and not crash or lose data?

But organizations which release software focusing only on that one aspect of product quality are often unpleasantly surprised by inconsistency. They are doing all the right things — following a good process, using good methods and tools, and regularly reviewing all those to see what can be improved. Yet sometimes the product is better, sometimes worse. Why?

External product quality — in software, that’s how well the software serves its users when it’s running, is not enough. There’s also internal quality. The readability of the codebase. Code that’s well-written — easy to understand quickly — is easier to maintain. Fewer programmer errors, and fewer schedule slips. We can add to that clear and organized debug output, which avoids false positives, and gives an accurate record of when the running software seemed to be fine, but was really operating on the edge — just barely recovering from failures.

But there’s another part of the product that’s often overlooked. Overlooked when reorganizing teams, or just when parceling out the daily assignments from multiple projects. The developers. If you take a single iteration of a software product, with development at its best, you’ll apply best process, methods, and tools to put out the next version of the software, and maybe even have codebase improvement (cleanup, refactoring) on the list too. Get to release and you deliver good running software, more maintainable code and … the new state of the team that developed it.

The team members may have learned new methods or technologies. Or just how to avoid pitfalls from the past. Equally important, that particular team learned how to work together — not in general, but specifically in today’s process, methods & tools, and codebase. And with each other. This third part of the product cannot be ignored or thrown away, just as nobody would think to delete a code branch delivered to the customer, or switch out a working library in mid-project.

Looking further at this third component of the product — the team that delivered it — we see clearly that those quality improvement concepts of process, methods, and tools do not exist in a vacuum. They are not just abstract ideas. Rather, they exist in the team members who develop a product, and are unified by teamwork — which means this team learning to work together with these people on this product.

So when you think of product quality improvement, plan to improve all of these:

  1. How the product works
  2. How the codebase looks
  3. How the team works

And at the end of an iteration, make sure to review and protect all three. That’s the guarantee that the next version of the product will be even better.

Written by Tom Harris

July 18, 2009 at 11:26 pm

Posted in Agile

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