Businesses must watch out for gremlins in the machine

13 Nov 2008

Firms tightening their belts will need to ensure existing IT systems are bug-free say Declan Kavanagh, managing director of Sogeti, and Phil Codd, managing director of SQS Ireland.

With business spending on IT liable to slow as economic conditions remain weak, firms will more than likely try to make do with their existing IT systems.

Two major IT services firms have warned Irish businesses and government bodies that if they take this route, it is important they test their systems to ensure no bugs will affect them.

Otherwise, organisations risk potential IT disasters such as the PPARS (Personnel, Payroll and Related Systems) debacle that saw €170m wasted on a technology platform for health boards that didn’t work.

In recent weeks, the State’s spending watchdog, the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, commended the Irish Blood Transfusion Service for pulling the plug on a failed computer system that cost €700,000 in taxpayer’s money.

The system had over 100 bugs in it. If the plug hadn’t been pulled, the system could have gone over-budget and ended up being several times more expensive for the taxpayer.

Ironically, the failed system, which would have been vital to the collection of over 150,000 blood donations, was being built to replace another IT system that went €5m over budget.

“There is a growing recognition in the business community that if you don’t test your systems, it costs you money,” says Declan Kavanagh, chief executive of Sogeti Ireland. “But if you test early enough in the lifecycle of a project, it will save you money. That’s probably why the software-testing business tends to be more resilient to downturns.

“When times are good, we are usually at the bottom of a market, but when firms go through the first rounds of cost-cutting, testing becomes paramount. Traditionally, software testing is seen as an overhead, but now it’s being seen as a value-ad.”

According to Kavanagh, the reduced budget for public sector IT projects will impact existing projects, but he believes core projects will continue to roll out. “The public sector is measured on the value and quality service it provides to citizens. Investment in IT will be a core attribute of this service in the years ahead, so core projects will continue.

“But, with reduced staffing, the public sector will be looking to reduce duplication. You will see a reduction in major PPARS-type projects. The public sector will focus more on smaller projects delivering a quicker demonstration of business value.”

Phil Codd is managing director of SQS Ireland, a test-services company employing 100 people. He says software testing is not generally regarded as one of the sexiest areas of technology, but when things go wrong, that perspective changes.

“An easy example of what can go wrong is British Airways’ Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport. The problems it had were down to software defects. If it had tested its systems more, it wouldn’t have run into problems. It’s an extreme example of why software testing matters.”

“The important thing for any business relying on software is, if it is introducing something new, it needs to test it to make sure it fits in with all the other pieces of technology the business uses. Will it perform after you go live? And every improvement you make to the system will need to be tested.”

He advises firms that are implementing new IT systems not to just rely on a contractor’s word that the system has been tested. “Independent testing is that second opinion that could matter, especially to a firm with shareholders to answer to.

“There is tangible evidence of companies admitting that if they had tested their new systems more, they wouldn’t have lost so much money.”

A Standish Group survey indicates that 46pc of IT projects in general are over-budget, and that 25pc of IT projects fail due to lack of testing.

Kavanagh says that private sector companies accountable to shareholders will have the most to lose by failing to independently test their systems. “In particular, publicly quoted companies will be trying to retain profitability through the downturn. They are going to plan to be lean and cut spending, and will try to leverage their existing IT systems to steer them through. This is precisely the time they’ll need to test their systems, and not see this as an unnecessary overhead.”

Codd agrees: “The cost of fixing something early is 10 times cheaper than if you let it go into production.

“As people try to make the most of their existing IT systems, quality is foremost. The way to ensure that quality is to test early and test often.”

By John Kennedy

Pictured: firms tightening their belts will need to ensure existing IT systems are bug-free say Declan Kavanagh, managing director of Sogeti, and Phil Codd, managing director of SQS Ireland

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years