I've been deeply involved in object-oriented C++ software development the past decade. Like my editorial predecessor Stan Lippman, however, my background began outside of computing. In my case, I studied sociology, focusing on organizational behavior and group dynamics. This training left a deep impression on me and throughout my technical career I've been acutely aware of the impact that social forces have on software development. Recently, I've been studying the social forces that cause some software development organizations to succeed and others to fail. In this month's Editors Corner I'll discuss some common dysfunctional traits I've observed in unsuccessful projects. In my next Editors Corner, I'll discuss how other projects I've worked on have succeeded, in spite of the potential traps and pitfalls discussed below.
It's no secret that software projects often fail, e.g., by not meeting customer requirements, arriving substantially overbudget and late, or being cancelled entirely. In addition to my academic research, I've worked on a broad range of software projects ranging from online transaction processing to telecommunication software and distributed medical imaging systems. Some projects have been quite successful -- shipping products that met or exceeded customer requirements and expectations. However, I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that too many projects have failed. I suspect that I'm not alone in my experience -- some reports claims that well over half of all new software projects are never completed, or are substantially downsized due to cost overruns, poor software quality, etc.
There are many reasons for the high rate of failed software projects. A convenient explanation places the blame on the programming language (e.g., C++ vs. Smalltalk), operating system (e.g., UNIX vs. Windows NT), or design method (e.g., object-oriented vs. structured design). In my experience, however, the reasons most projects fail are deeply rooted in social forces. The following is a list of five traits that I've observed in the unsuccessful development teams and organizations I've worked with. If left unchecked, these traits can seriously undermine software project success.
Clearly, a good development process (note the small "p") is essential to produce quality software for large-scale systems. However, software quality begins with quality software developers. Moreover, a software process should *facilitate* productivity, not destroy it! All too often, the quest for "zero defect" software quality leads to zero software. For example, one project I consulted on in the past several years adopted a heavyweight process model, only to have productivity completely evaporate. In the span of 12 months the team spent multiple person-years of effort attending endless meetings and writing extensive documents detailing their standard operating procedures, coding standards, requirement tracking models, etc. Unfortunately, relatively little time was spent discussing the essential software architecture and design issues or actually writing any software to review against the operating procedures and coding standards. At year's end, the technically creative members of the team had quit in frustration and the project was completely gutted once corporate headquarters recognized that significant technical progress had not occurred nor was likely to occur.
I believe the quest for panaceas from software Process is alluring because it appears to absolve us from having to address the tough development issues. Chief among these is capturing and articulating the abstractions, patterns, and components required to build usable and reusable software in complex domains such as avionics, business data processing, telecommunications, on-line transaction processing, and distributed communication systems. My prognosis is that "death through quality" will claim many more victims before this disease is cured.
I predict that as software systems become increasingly complex that companies who recognize and reward quality software developers will increasingly outperform those who don't.
An example of this "penny wise, but pound foolish" trait occurred on a large-scale distributed system project I consulted on in the past several years. The company had tried to save money on licensing costs by developing most of their distributed components in house. They essentially recreate an ORB from scratch. Unfortunately, this was counter-productive since the effort and expense required to develop these components internally was actually much higher than the licensing costs! In addition, although the development team had a great deal of domain expertise, they had little distributed system expertise. Therefore, their eventual solution wasn't robust, which made maintenance and administration prohibitively expensive.
The five traits discussed above certainly don't exhaust the subject of dysfunctional organizations, but they do convey the essence of key problems I've observed in unsuccessful software projects. You may have noticed that I didn't focus on the role of C++ in project success or failure. This was intentional. No language (or platform, or design method, or framework) by itself can rescue projects plagued with the dysfunctional traits I presented above. I've certainly found that C++ can be used to produce high quality software, but it's important to keep things in perspective.
So what can we do to address these organizational problems? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. It can be hard, if not impossible, to solve these problems on your own. One of the most important lessons I leared from my sociological training is that social forces can be much more powerful than individual forces. I've certainly felt frustrated working on projects that seemed hell-bent on self-destruction. Not surprisingly, another characteristic of unsuccessful projects is that their leaders are not receptive to external input and do not heed early warning signs of trouble.
In spite of these limitations, it's still worthwhile to keep an eye out for signs of these dysfunctional traits in your own organizations. You may be able to help your team and your company avoid some of these traps and pitfalls, or at least help to alleviate the consequences of these social forces for your own development team. Moreover, by keeping yourself informed (both technically and sociologically), you'll greatly increase your ability to navigate successfully through dysfunctional organizations.
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Last modified 18:06:19 CST 25 January 2019