Software Quality Professional From the Editor - March 2000 - ASQ

Software Quality Professional From the Editor - March 2000


I come to praise software, not to blame it.

Despite all the horror stories, computers and computerized systems have had a far more positive than negative influence on our lives. Of course it is software that drives these systems, so it is the success of software that ought to be trumpeted.

If we think about it from an adequate distance–not in the day-to-day struggles and disappointments we face personally and professionally–software has provided some of the most significant and satisfying advances in modern life.

We can communicate and collaborate, do business and seek distraction, increasingly unconstrained by distance or time...all thanks to the power of computing circuitry under the direction of programmed instructions.

Unfortunately, bad news–stories of the unpleasant or the unexpected–tends to crowd out good news. As I tell my wife when she expresses concern about my air travel, the evening news is unlikely to ever begin with the story “Ten thousand planes land safely today.”

I must admit that it is easier to make a striking case study from things that go spectacularly wrong than to try teasing lessons learned out of projects completed within time, budget, and expectation. My own teaching has drawn on a litany of disasters such as the Therac 25 radiation therapy device that fatally overexposed patients or the explosion that destroyed the first flight of the Arianne 5 booster rocket.

Even triumphs are sometimes cloaked by the less significant shortcomings. I have used the Patriot missile as a case study, not so much for its remarkable transformation but for one spectacular failure. In a well-publicized incident during the Gulf War an incoming attacking Scud was not neutralized by the defending Patriot, and a number of soldiers were killed in their barracks. The root cause was a fascinating consequence of an unexamined shift in requirements, but the real story was that the Patriot was a victim of its own success: a device designed as an anti-aircraft missile that was transformed by reprogramming into a very different beast–an anti-missile missile.

The most spectacular success of reprogramming has to be that of the Voyager 2 spacecraft. This interplanetary robot was sent out to explore Jupiter and Saturn. After successful high-speed fly-bys of those planets, Voyager 2 was redesigned to encounter the additional planets of Uranus and Neptune, something that had not been planned when it was launched years earlier. The redesign was done literally across the width of the solar system, at distances so great it took hours for speed-of-light signals to travel to and from the rapidly fleeing spaceship. Without the slightest chance of a hardware modification, its mission was transformed by software alone.

These triumphs of software and systems engineering often go unnoticed. Perhaps that is a compliment to the high expectations we have for our technological prowess. Perhaps, as I said before, it is simply because one Tacoma Narrows bridge dramatically tearing itself apart captures the imagination in a way that thousands of safe and reliable bridges used year in and year out cannot.

Of course there was some attention given to that greatest of nondisasters, the date rollover at year’s beginning. So let me belatedly say, “Welcome to 2000! Welcome the Network Age!”

More than an Information Age, we are indeed living in a Network Age.

Individual computers–whether room-sized supercomputers or desktop (or smaller) personal computers–might be wonders of computational power, speed, and accuracy. The really explosive power of such computing devices, however, began to be realized as they were able to communicate with one they were networked.

The power of the network is a recurring affirmation of the old saying about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The modern Network Age has created exponential growth in the utility of transportation and communication and is starting to do so in other areas ranging from education to health care.

The automobile was really only a horseless carriage as long as it has to chug along on horse paths. The great transformation of the automobile as a means of transport–and, in turn, its transformation of our culture–came as the highway system grew into a powerful network. The interstate highway system was truly the first great network of the Network Age. Telephones, too, were pretty much curiosities until they were linked in a true network.

My computer can do fine word processing in a manner that I find much superior to the capabilities of pen and legal pad. But the real breakthrough was when I could send the files I had word-processed to others and could likewise receive the files of others from literally around the world. It changed my way of working and living in a way that no mere summation of all the other computers’ word-processing capabilities could have.

The true power of our profession, too, is in networking...of the human kind. The main goal of this journal is to help link the thousands of its readers together in a more closely functioning network of shared interests and shared insight.

Welcome to the software quality network! Let us leverage our power together.


I can be contacted at

Software Quality Professional Journal Cover

Featured advertisers

ASQ is a global community of people passionate about quality, who use the tools, their ideas and expertise to make our world work better. ASQ: The Global Voice of Quality.