Zero Defects In Software, Setting a Higher Bar

Several months ago I published a letter to upper management about improving software processes.  In that post I laid out what our team needed to do to be more effective at our jobs. Since that letter nearly five months ago, I have been promoted to management myself and now manage the team. While some might say I’ve gone to the dark side, I would vehemently disagree.  The role certainly has changed me but I like my role because I still am a developer and know that high quality solutions do mean dollars in our pockets because we’re able to adjust/react more quickly.

I just got done reading an article over my lunch break and it caused me to shake my head in one key spot (emphasis mine):

It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to build and maintain a dynamic web site that works flawlessly every moment of every day for every customer. Between implementing new content, changing technology,  managing internal stakeholders, and designing for customers who have different objectives, learning styles, and backgrounds, you could never produce a 100 percent error-free site. After all, to err is human.

Have we really set the bar that low with quality in software? I think we need to raise the bar.  A few months ago I took a stand with my letter to management, here is a similar email I wrote to my team recently which works to combat the thought process and acceptance of poor quality so rampant in our industry:

All,

As a developer I've worked on systems and rarely, if ever, have we set the bar so high as to have zero known bugs in the system.  I think often this is looked at as "too lofty" or "impossible".  Well, the development team here currently has one bug and is fast approaching zero.  It IS possible.

In our department we often talk of "demonstrating competency and expertise".  The flip-side of setting such high expectation is that we can shatter our reputation quickly with even a few small issues or bugs.  Chris has said that developers are like airline pilots and that you only hear about them when something goes wrong.  There's a lot of truth in that.  You expect a pilot to get you somewhere safely - people expect our software to work.

I think we should not shy away from holding ourselves to an excessively high standard.  Frankly, I'm more familiar with how to do it as a developer having years of building software to gain knowledge and experience from.  I don't have all the answers on how do this from the other aspects but I don't think this means we stop trying.  I think quality should be the first and highest goal.  Speed should follow quality.  If you're keeping a high quality standard and feel overwhelmed that the work is backing up behind you and you can't ensure the highest quality, please don't hesitate to talk to me about it and we'll see if priorities can be reworked.

As a team we're setting a positive direction for our department and its future. As we continue to refine our processes and expectations within each subgroup be aware of the lasting impact of the work we do.  Be vigilant about improvements in the process we can make.   If you see areas where you see quality slipping, pull the "red cord" and stop the process from going further until the quality is fixed.  We want anything that leaves this department to be of the highest quality, whether a proofing round or a final product build.  Don’t rely on other departments to back us up.  If we operate in this manner we'll only build further credibility and reputation within the company.

Tim

What about you? What’s your stance towards bugs? Think zero defect is too lofty?


Posted 08-26-2009 1:04 PM by Tim Barcz

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Comments

Luke Foust wrote re: Zero Defects In Software, Setting a Higher Bar
on 08-26-2009 5:46 PM

While I completely agree with your sentiment, it seems to me that saying you have no known bugs in your software doesn't really say much about how many UNKNOWN bugs you have.

I tend to see bugs as a fact of life when it comes to software. Since defects can take so many different forms and can vary widely in terms of severity, I think you still have to do more than just say 'Fix all bugs now'.

I think you are alluding to the culture of software development where you constantly live with a backlog of bugs that keep getting pushed aside for more features or whatever the excitement of the day is. Your zero tolerance stance on bugs can definitely help prevent this scenario.

ijrussell wrote re: Zero Defects In Software, Setting a Higher Bar
on 08-26-2009 5:57 PM

Had you asked that question 10 years ago I would have said that whilst we aim to produce software with no bugs, any sizeable solution would be pretty much guaranteed to have them.  Today with testing frameworks, better understanding of OO principles (SOLID etc) and the tools to implemnt them effectively as well as customer acceptance testing frameworks like FIT, I have no doubt that we should be aiming for zero defects.  Quality is non-negotiable.

Bob Saggett wrote re: Zero Defects In Software, Setting a Higher Bar
on 08-26-2009 6:14 PM

Zero bugs is a nice standard to aim for but you must understand that there are significant costs in achieving it. Getting to 90% bug-free should be easy for most projects. 99% may be ten times as difficult and 99.9% may be ten times more. (These are guesses of course).

The problem is that you are subject to the law of diminishing returns. You put in more and more effort to find and fix bugs that may never be seen in a live environment. The question then becomes, "Is it worth it?". I think that beyond a certain point it isn't. Worse, it may be damaging your business to have very intelligent people spending time searching for bugs that may or may not exist.

In reality, I can't think of a single piece of software I use that doesn't have some form of bug. I still use it though because I quickly realised the workarounds and they don't affect me day-to-day. There's one piece of software that I use every day that didn't even hit the 90% mark in my opinion but it is valuable enough that I will use it until I can be bothered to write my own version.

I guess it boils down to sensible use of time and ensuring that there is nothing in there that will cause real pain. That and fixing things really quickly when problems are reported.

PS: Love the captcha

Chris Missal wrote re: Zero Defects In Software, Setting a Higher Bar
on 08-26-2009 10:34 PM

I'm with ijrussell on this one: "Quality is non-negotiable"

As a member of the project Tim is speaking of I can honestly say that zero-defects is not too lofty. We have a lot of help in place to ensure that we can maintain this, things that other projects I have been a part of never had: a Continuous Integration environment that runs thousands of unit tests, code reviews on all commits, excellent communication and visibility within a great team, good use of SCM and branch per feature, etc.. the list goes on.

When you combine all these things that all projects *should* be doing, there's little to no excuse for known defects.

Nicholas Piasecki wrote re: Zero Defects In Software, Setting a Higher Bar
on 08-26-2009 10:36 PM

The quote you pulled doesn't mention defects or bugs explicitly, it mentions errors experienced by customers on a Web site. Defects and bugs can cause errors, to be sure, but they aren't the only causes of errors.

Sometimes a third-party payment processor goes down; this can cause a failure when the user attempts to check out via that path, like Google Checkout. You can display a graceful error message, but it's still an error experienced by the user. And it's neither a defect nor a bug, it's a fact of life.

Sometimes a network link to the database goes down. If this happens, the site you're using is going to fail. You can display a fail whale, but it's still an error, and it's not a bug.

Finally, sometimes your users have a special circumstance. Their ISP in West Yemen can't reach your site for some reason. Your router might implement TCP window scaling incorrectly, causing the site to be inaccessible for Windows Vista users. These are failures that your customers will experience, but they aren't bugs.

I think this may have been the crux of the argument (can't tell because I don't see a link to whole thing): you are simply not going to have an error-free Web site for every moment of every day for every customer, *even if* the code that comprises the Web site itself has zero defects.

Fixing bugs in code is important, but it's easy to miss the forest for the trees: the errors that your users see can frequently be the result of forces that the code interacts with and runs under, not the code itself, so the cost-to-benefit ratio of fixing particular defects in code is very real.

My two cents.

Ollie Riches wrote re: Zero Defects In Software, Setting a Higher Bar
on 08-27-2009 10:32 AM

To be honest sounds like a managment point of view because the emphasis is on the external facing impression of the team. And once you go down that road there is no turing back ;)

Yes no bugs in a system is a goal that should be strived for, but to me it's not the most important measure of success...

Tim Barcz wrote re: Zero Defects In Software, Setting a Higher Bar
on 08-27-2009 11:04 AM

@Ollie,

A management point of view? really?  Most managers in the past don't care about quality as long as they meet a deadline or keep costs down.

The bug count in our system is just one measure of success, not the only by any means.

Brett wrote re: Zero Defects In Software, Setting a Higher Bar
on 08-29-2009 12:58 PM

Zero known defects is by no means setting the Bar too high

Zero defects I'm not so sure.

I am also not sure that this is the most important measure of software quality. Usability, Maintainability, Testability etc seem far more important to me.

In fact I would rate the Usability of the Application way above finding every possible bug.

As however mentioned by Chris using Continuous Integration, TDD, Code Reviews etc you can easily achieve zero known bugs.

brett

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on 08-30-2009 5:13 AM

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David Jameson wrote re: Zero Defects In Software, Setting a Higher Bar
on 01-21-2011 12:48 PM

I completely agree that quality should be the first priority. The main turnoff for customers is buggy software. People can put up with the occasional small delay, but not a crash. I have always made sure that our mature products have zero known bugs. It's not rocket science and it doesn't take a great deal of resources - you just need to make it a priority from the start. Why do so few companies realise this?

Some people use the excuse that it's not worth fixing the bug if nobody (or only a few customers) have come across it. In my experience the customers who log bugs tend to be the ones most likely to be interested in purchasing it. So by not fixing these bugs you are potentially losing important customers. Also bear in mind that (at least in my experience) only about 1% of users actually report bugs, so for each bug report there are probably 100 users who just think "what a crappy product" and never bother telling you!

Of course any large piece of software will have unknown bugs and problems in third party software that you have no control over, but at least by resolving the known bugs you can make your product much higher quality and your customers happier!

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