Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Software Quality: A Race to the Bottom?

Another Old Hand, whose opinions are based on very relevant experience, says that the software industry is trapped in a race to the bottom in software quality.

The trap is that investors' needs are divorced from software companies' mechanisms for producing value. Investors want the stock price or corporate valuation to improve in every reporting period; every year, every quarter, every month, every day. Investors are entirely uninterested in what a company did last month. They invest today to reap profit in the future. Companies, on the other hand, can only demonstrate their ability to produce value by completing projects; shipping disks, posting content, publishing interfaces. But it is hard to encode much value into a software product in a day or a month.

To impress investors, a company must ship, soon. Since investors aren't interested in what the software does, there is a strong incentive to ship early, but less incentive to ship complete or useful code. For a startup which has never shipped, it's all about who has the value story with the most zeros on the end of it and the shortest time to delivery.

To impress partners and customers, a company must ship. Customers are largely uninterested in what a company plans to do. They want products now. If a potential customer wants functionality, and there are competitors, the one who ships first wins the customer. Having won, it's a relatively smaller problem to keep the customer. Customers are used to defective software.

Thus, according to my friend, what wins is crazy, caffeine-fueled speed. Quality doesn't matter. By the time the customer finds out the product is imperfect, the sale is made, the money paid.

This reasoning depresses me. I hate what it means for my profession. Yet I can find no flaws in the argument, only small exceptions; established quality brands; software products (databases, kernels) that can never work in the marketplace if they aren't reliable; special customers who know what they need and write quality into their purchase agrements.

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