Informal observations

December 31, 2012

JackGanssle-December 31, 2012

For this, my last column of 2012, I want to share some observations of the state of the industry from my peripatetic wandering this year over four continents.

I've presented my "Better Firmware Faster" seminar on-site to many hundreds of companies and thousands of developers. It was inspired by a couple of decades of work in the embedded tool business that took me into developers' labs all over the world.

What I found then, and what is still true today, is that so many of us are facing the same problems: projects are late and systems get shipped seeded with bugs. In the '80s and '90s, engineers tried to deal with these realities by working harder and by superhuman debugging efforts. Today, the workload has become unrealistic; most projects are late the day they start and never catch up. The seminar is designed to show ways to avoid these problems, and I get a kick out of talking to the attendees to learn about their unique challenges.

A central observation of the quality movement that revolutionized manufacturing is that products are both cheaper and delivered faster when quality is designed in from the beginning. In the software world this has morphed into a critical aphorism: a focus on fixing bugs will lead to neither on-time delivery nor quality code.

That last clause should cause most of us to rethink our approach to building embedded systems (which is the focus of my seminar). But it hasn't. Most teams embrace the same heroics used for decades.

But some things have changed.

Code is getting better. At least new code; a lot of people are in maintenance on old systems which is invariably based on awful software.

Although there are a ton of exceptions, I'm seeing more care going into structural issues: architecture and design. And, again with plenty of counterexamples, code is generally better crafted than a few years ago. Names make more sense, and engineers are careful to follow at least some stylistic issues.

The data shows that this care translates into better products. The entire IT world fixes about 85% of the bugs in their code pre-shipment. Embedded products average a 95% fix rate. That's still too low, but at least our industry is ahead of the pack.

But I'm not convinced it's improving fast enough to keep up with the increasing demands being made on firmware.

I encounter teams that have wholeheartedly embraced one or another of the agile methods. There's a lot of talk about agile; it's a subject that always comes up, and XP and Scrum both get a lot of mind share. The truth, though, is that it's still pretty unusual to find groups that practice these approaches with any sort of discipline or rigor.

Test-Driven Development has an increasing number of adherents, but I find very few teams using it; instead there's the occasional lone wolf using TDD.

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