5 June, 2000 -- When Intel announced its forthcoming entry into streaming media operations, it seemed a big change from making chips. But when I spoke with the company's director of service technology, Mike Witteman, he pointed out the parallel demands. "Intel has the process discipline that keeps multibillion-dollar fabrication plants running at the highest levels of precision and quality, 24-by-7," Witteman observed. "That same discipline translates into the services space, just as it has with our existing e-business server farms."
Intel wins every few years when it designs a important new chip, but it wins every day when it produces those chips in a steady stream; the company's superb process is what makes it such a dominant force.
By contrast, the software side of our industry is infamous for process immaturity. The Software Engineering Institute ranks 70 percent of software development operations at either the first or second tier of its five-tier maturity scale.
"The way we build software is in the hunter-gatherer stage," said Brad Cox, designer of the Objective-C language that was the core of the revolutionary tool kit on the NeXT computer. And John Munson, a software engineer and professor at the University of Idaho, calls most software "cave art."
Some say that leading-edge software can't be built without ragged-edge creativity, but there are organizations that build near-perfect software, on schedule, to perform the most demanding tasks. The Lockheed Martin team that writes space shuttle on-board software, for example, exhibits a fraction of 1 percent of the error rate that's typical in commercial code.
It's their process, emphasizing clear specifications and rigorous change management, that makes the shuttle software team an exemplar of software quality. Every IT organization can strive to follow that example.