Fire support center gains CMMI Level 5

Phillip S. Sperling, chief process engineer at the Fire Support Software Engineering Center, says CMMI has helped boost productivity by 48 percent while cutting software defects by 80 percent.

Jeff Dixon

The Fire Support Software Engineering Center at Fort Sill, Okla., has cut the number of coding defects in its software by 80 percent over the past eight years.

During that same period productivity has risen by 48 percent. The center manages 9 million lines of code'six times as many lines as it was developing and maintaining a decade ago.

And during that period, the center has had virtually no change in its staffing level, which has remained at about 400 workers since the early 1990s.

How did they do it?

Working with contractor Telos-OK LLC of Lawton, Okla., the center adopted a new methodology known as incremental software development and made other software process improvements.

The changes recently earned the center the highest rating, Level 5, of the Software Engineering Institute's Capability Maturity Model for Integration.

It took 13 years of work, said Phillip S. Sperling of Telos-OK, principal process engineer for the center.

'This methodology is known more casually as 'build a little'test a little,' ' Sperling said. 'It provides for finding and removing errors earlier in a project than other methodologies do. When an organization can find and remove errors earlier, it decreases the amount of rework later in development.'

That in turn requires a smaller staff and allows smoother transition of requirements changes, Sperling said, so it takes less time to incorporate the changes.

The fire support center is the first government organization to achieve the CMMI Level 5 rating using the institute's CMMI 1.1 and the Standard CMMI Appraisal Method for Process Improvement Version 1.1.

Dave Zubrow, team lead for the Software Engineering Measurement and Analysis initiative at SEI, located at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said that only 13 organizations worldwide have been appraised and processed for Level 5. He said he based that on a preliminary draft of the CMMI maturity model released in September.

The fire support center, a branch of the Army Communications-Electronic Command, designs field artillery and fire support software that helps warfighters see and hit targets accurately. The center also provides software upgrades, maintenance and training development.

Its mission-critical DOD software calculates such things as how far a round will go before it's fired, said Maj. William 'Rad' Lee, field artillery executive officer at the center.

You've got evidence

The primary characteristic of a high-maturity software organization 'is its ability to quantitatively manage its processes,' Sperling said. That means not relying on guesswork but on hard proof.

'There's a lot of detail involved in this model,' he said. 'It's rigorous'there's a lot more evidence required to demonstrate your maturity level.'

The center achieved a Level 4 CMMI rating in November 1997, after it began using a Metrics Control Panel'an automated tool that receives real-time updates across the organization and is continuously monitored by managers, Sperling said.

To achieve Level 5, the center incorporated 'significantly more rigorous engineering practices,' Sperling said, including use of data analysis to identify and resolve the root causes of problems.

SEI developed CMMI for systems and software engineering as a follow-on to the older Capability Maturity Model, which will be phased out soon.

The 16-year-old CMM specifies five levels of software development expertise. The top, Level 5, indicates reliably effective processes and excellent project management.

CMMI extends the process improvement goals to software engineering techniques and principles. Its adherents aim for consistency, uniformity, standardization and lack of contradiction among their documents and software products.

It was August 1990 when the fire support center first began working in accordance with SEI's guidelines.

The plan 'focused on key practices associated with organization and system-level process documentation, personnel training, process improvement and technology innovation,' Sperling said.

The center starting planning for CMMI Level 5 as soon as it received its Level 4 designation six years ago. At that point, 'Process improvement is a way of life for an organization,' Sperling said. 'Improvements flow naturally from the work force.'

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