Software aside, most application development projects deliver two predictable outcomes: they run over time and over budget. But there are signs of a corporate backlash against what had previously been seen as an uncomfortable fact of life, says Guy Lloyd, northern Europe business manager for systems and software giant IBM’s WebSphere suite of application development tools. Increasingly, he says, organisations are demanding greater accountability from application development teams.
Take the case of a European retail bank that bought IBM’s WebSphere Application Developer Workbench software in 2002. Before sanctioning the purchase, the bank’s senior IT management made both its in-house development team and outsourced developers in India commit to an agreement. The developers agreed not only that they would deliver the applications they intended to build using the products within specific time and cost parameters,
but that these applications would also deliver measurable productivity gains to the bank over a 12-month period.
The problem with making such demands is that in the face of budget cuts, IT departments have also been set the task of doing “more with less — that is, creating and maintaining more applications with a minimum amount of technical professionals. It is no longer feasible to expect an in-house application development team to simultaneously function as researchers of new technology, developers and business-domain experts,” claims research director Jim Duggan at IT market analysis company Gartner.
Pressure to produce an ROI will force many organisations to seek new methods of application development, say analysts, who predict that outsourced service providers are set to benefit from this trend. “By 2005, 80% of application development teams in traditional enterprises will be comprised of outsourced or ‘virtual’ team employees,” says Duggan.
But greater use of outsourcing is just one change that organisations may need to make. In addition, organisations will shorten the length of application development projects, establish smaller and more geographically dispersed project teams, and depend increasingly on the skills of project managers to consolidate disparate development activities.
Shortages in in-house development skills will drive organisations to look for external help with applications development. This shortage will become more acute as organisations gradually embrace complex service-based architectures such as web services (see box, Developing web services).
A widespread lack of experience in building applications to fit these new architectures will force organisations to rely on help from third-party application development specialists for the development, maintenance and integration of applications, especially organisations that have historically been mainstream, or conservative, adopters of new technology, according to Duggan at Gartner. Before outsourcing, organisations must audit their existing skill set and identify critical areas to augment, supplement or completely outsource, he adds.
Cost is often the factor that clinches an outsourcing deal. This was the case with Daltile, a manufacturer of ceramic tiles, which outsourced the development and hosting of a major new project to services provider IBM Global Services (IBM GS), in 2001. Dallas, US-based Daltile wanted to expand its collaboration with its global suppliers and distributors over the Internet. Previously, Daltile had used an electronic data interchange (EDI) system, which some of its customers considered too costly for exchanging sales data.
IBM GS provided Daltile with a fully hosted Internet data and document exchange service, based on its e-sourcing software platform. Daltile is now able to exchange business documents with its supply chain partners over the public Internet, and via secure private networks. “Building and running a comparable in-house solution might have cost approximately ten times more,” says Dave Fling, Daltile’s manager of EDI services.
Other companies will eschew big, strategic projects in favour of a far more cautious approach to application development. “Organisations have become far more risk averse. This has resulted in more of a focus on ‘must have’, as opposed to ‘nice to have’ projects,” says Mike Lucas, UK technology manager at application and testing tools vendor Compuware.
For these companies, the answer may be small, flexible project teams that deliver specific software components over a period of six to nine months, as part of a wider project.
It is also increasingly common for large organisations to engage geographically dispersed teams of developers on the same project. For example, an investment bank’s developers could code software in London. When their working day ends at 5pm, the task of reviewing the code is passed to a team in Los Angeles, which is just starting its working day. An outsourced
development team in India might then test the software. By utilising time differences, time-to-market for a new product can be significantly reduced, claims Laurent Seraphin, European product line manager at application development tool specialist Borland.
However, this synchronicity is far more difficult to achieve than many organisations anticipate, in part because of a lack of on-going discussion between the disparate teams. “We see far more organisations attempting multiple time-zone development than succeed,” says Duggan at Gartner.
This is one reason why the role of a project manager as a central contact point – either internally, or with outsourcers and external systems integrators – is crucial. Even in a economic downturn, organisations need to retain and invest in skilled project managers. “Project managers have a great deal of domain expertise, while application developers with specific technical skills are better equipped to become part of a virtual team delivered by a systems integrator or an outsourcer,” says Duggan.
“Project managers have to focus far more on the collaboration and coordination of different parties involved in a project,” agrees Lucas at Compuware. Instead of being a technical expert, more importance is now placed on the project manager’s ability to coordinate work across teams and manage budgets. “Now project managers are more like a business manager — and faults are a lot less tolerated than they used to be,” says Lloyd at IBM.
Fortunately, the burden on project managers has been eased somewhat by web-based change management software that tracks the status of projects and changes made to software code. A slew of vendors including Serena Software, Rational Software, and Micro Focus sell change management tools.
One company that has already experimented with the potential of these tools is Choice Hotels, an operator of over 5,000 hotels and resort franchises. Back in 2001, Choice wanted to improve its ability to track defects in its in-house software development efforts, which include building applications that enable customers to book hotel rooms over the Internet. Previously, developers had struggled using Microsoft Word or email to co-ordinate their efforts, solve problems and share advice.
Choice decided to use Rational’s Software’s defect tracking and change management tool ClearQuest, as well as its automated testing tool, Rational Robot. A web-based product, ClearQuest enables developers to ask for status reports and ascertain which requirements still need testing. Chad Mason, manager of quality assurance for Choice Hotels, claims ClearQuest has helped deliver a significant return on investment (ROI). “Whereas in the past a developer may have spent 50% of the time coding and 50% figuring out what they to do, now our developers can spend 80% or more of their time coding,” he says. In addition, Robot helped Choice reduce testing times from one week to less than one day, claims Mason.
Ultimately, demand from end users for specific IT services and products will drive the direction of application development. So perhaps the most pressing imperative for organisations is to put in place project managers capable of acting as a ‘go-between’, liasing with both the application development team and the wider business. “It does still remain a very distinct problem for technical people to reach out into the end-user community to understand business needs,” says Ian Fisher, vice president of the software configuration management group at enterprise software company Oracle.