Get your filthy hands off my code!

For some years now (well the last half decade at least) various vendors from the Business Intelligence space to the pure-play development behemoths have been talking about bringing in the influence of non-technical staff into the software delivery process.It should not surprise you to learn that vendors who extol the virtues of these practices have put two and two together and said that the current economic crisis demands a renewed focus on these concepts.

For some years now (well the last half decade at least) various vendors from the Business Intelligence space to the pure-play development behemoths have been talking about bringing in the influence of non-technical staff into the software delivery process.

It should not surprise you to learn that vendors who extol the virtues of these practices have put two and two together and said that the current economic crisis demands a renewed focus on these concepts. The rationale being that during these times of global economic pressure, input from the departmental managers to lawyers to financial or management consultants can help produce software that is more finely attuned to the economic environment in which it has to function.

Latest to the table with a promise to meet “the evolving needs of the business” is IBM with its Rational Quality Management Portfolio. Announced at 3pm GMT today, Big Blue insists that quality assurance standards in software will become more of an issue now and so this is where this product set is focused.

Pardon me? Quality assurance wasn’t important yesterday then? Well no, of course not. So has IBM actually put two and two together and made five in terms of simply saying that business focused software is ultra important in a recession?

According to the Standish Group, businesses lose over £200bn annually in software-related downtimes and 41 per cent of IT projects fail to deliver the expected business value and return on investment (ROI). OK, so you’ve heard all these stats before (or ones just like them), but are we going to start thinking about them more seriously now?

Built on its Jazz platform, IBM’s new product (which it describes as a collaborative "hub") is focused on integration and version control for quality management with a quality manager that it says will, “Ensure it is no longer the sole responsibility of the software developer to find bugs and deliver a high quality product to market.”

Yes – this is all very well, but do you trust your company’s sales manager to take adequate responsibility for debugging the potential defects in the latest build?

The route to better software, according to IBM, lies in a web-based centralised test management environment. Is this championing the value of non-technical employees just a little bit too far perhaps? Collaboration with business roles during the development process is undeniably valuable, but allowing a business manager (or even a CIO) to push a project this way and that (to an even greater degree) in line with the needs of the company within its particular market surely needs to be reigned in.

In search of some external opinion here, I spoke to analyst David Norfolk, who I know well from our time attending IBM’s Rational Software Development Conference in the US this year.

“The idea that a recession (or whatever we have is called) will encourage people to do things properly for a change is very seductive - not least to the people working in organisations where they are responsible for QA, governance and so on, who hope that they'll be taken seriously for a change", says David Norfolk, practice leader for Development at Bloor. “Of course quality is as important now as it has always been, but one has a suspicion that in times of plenty the cost of mistakes is sometimes passed onto the customer without him/her noticing - or, at least, that the customer can be distracted from failures with awesome new features.”

“In recession, waste (and poor quality is wasteful) is very obviously bad for your reputation and image. Perhaps the issue with IBM's new QM Portfolio is that if you currently have quality issues and the recession has driven you to address them, new tools won't be much help until you're introduced a development culture that focuses on the appropriate level of quality: Let's put People before (but not instead of) Process and Tools,” added Norfolk

Norfolk went on to point out that, "Business users shouldn't really be looking for coding bugs in software and micromanaging development (although as Paul Gerrard of the Test Management Forum says, information about failures is valuable no matter where it comes from) - but they are very well placed to point out where software solves a problem different to the one the business actually has, which is a much more serious quality issue than a few bugs."

IBM’s product is doubtless very useful, but its announcement did not specify margins for influence and set out just how much impact a non-techie ‘suit’ can exert upon the software application development process.

I’m deliberately questioning of course – and I’m sure there are more technical details available from IBM’s product pages if you care to go looking – but I think that a broad brush corporate sell of this kind of product needs more meat on the bones.

Who is IBM targeting with this news? Corporate managers that will happily absorb these kind of macro-economic marketing message – or the individual software developers who will need to use the products? If it’s the latter, I want to suggest that there a fair degree of scepticism will exist and IBM needs to substantiate its product announcements with more technical details if they want to be taken seriously.