Defining a Software Configuration Management Process to Improve Quality

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In his CM: the Next Generation series, Joe Farah gives us a glimpse into the trends that CM experts will need to tackle and master based upon industry trends and future technology challenges.

Summary:
Joe Farah explains that to successfully build a software configuration management (SCM) process, you must have a solid understanding of the objects you need to manage and a good feel for what SCM is supposed to accomplish.

Having a process means having a repeatable series of actions. For example, what steps should you take when a problem report arrives? In this case, you should clarify the content, accept the problem, prioritize, and, if urgent, contact the software automation and technology team (SWAT). A process can guide you when you take action and when you reach decision points, like a critical problem report case. When the decisions can be automated based on available data and the tools and mechanisms are in place to support the actions, a well-defined process can lead to successful automation. When a process is automated, problems can be repeated and are much easier to diagnose and correct. As the problems are corrected, we attain higher quality.

Let's examine the following three steps that deal with process: defining the process, automating the process, and improving process quality.

Building a Software Configuration Management Process
To successfully build a software configuration management (SCM) process, you must have a solid understanding of the objects you need to manage and a good feel for what SCM is supposed to accomplish. If your focus is good version control and repeatable builds, you're heading in the right direction but falling short of meeting your requirements.

The goal of having an SCM process is to successfully deliver a software product to a customer or market in concordance with your business plan. This may mean little to a programmer, but the configuration management (CM) team’s decisions needs to take into account both the customer and the business case. 

When you initiate SCM in your project as simply a version control and a repeatable build process, you may find that the bigger picture is harder to achieve, because the practices and tools used to support this limited view of SCM can hinder growth. For example, by selecting a version control tool that does not support change packages at its core, you may end up teaching developers that file versions are the key unit of product advances rather than change packages. Once the tool is engrained in the environment, it's not easy to change the tool or the practice without dealing with a lot of resistance.

Additionally, if you begin with a version control tool and then realize that you need problem tracking, activity/task management, requirements/test case management, and so forth, you are working on an add-on tools approach, and in this case, it's not easy to change the tool. Using add-on tools means there's more integration required (between tools), more administration (different tools), more difficulty upgrading (as an upgrade can easily break the integration glue), and so forth. This is a common problem when the approach is “tools first.”

To counter this, you must ensure that you understand your end-to-end process and the technology capabilities needed to support such a process up front. If you have flexible enough technology that supports an integrated process definition within a CM framework, “tools first” is not necessarily bad because the tools are helping you implement the process.

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About the author

Joe Farah's picture Joe Farah

Joe Farah is the President and CEO of Neuma Technology and is a regular contributor to the CM Journal. Prior to co-founding Neuma in 1990 and directing the development of CM+, Joe was Director of Software Architecture and Technology at Mitel, and in the 1970s a Development Manager at Nortel (Bell-Northern Research) where he developed the Program Library System (PLS) still heavily in use by Nortel's largest projects. A software developer since the late 1960s, Joe holds a B.A.Sc. degree in Engineering Science from the University of Toronto. You can contact Joe at farah@neuma.com

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