Experts give tips on good software buying

Agencies need to mimic government best practices and monitor progress of their software implementation to make sure they're getting the best bang for their contract buck for large-scale software systems, said experts at a conference this week sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute.

Speakers highlighted good and bad techniques for acquiring large-scale software systems. As some speakers suggested, quicker, shorter and even cheaper may not translate to a better buy. Picking up the bid process pace 'usually means asking for less detail. Asking for less detail means intuiting more from the (contractors') response,' said Ted Marz, a technical staff member for the SEI, which in housed on CMU's Pittsburgh campus. SEI is a federally funded research and development group sponsored by the Department of Defense.

'By asking for less,' he said, 'you may be instead making the process longer rather than shorter.'

He suggested that instead of listing each development process the software companies should undertake, agencies should just list the process results they want to see in the software product. Then, they should make regular checks on that progress. 'It's too easy for (companies) to tell you what you want to hear,' Marz said. 'You've got to go lay your eyes on this.'

Others said agencies should tie those desired results with incentives to make sure the software package is delivered to satisfaction. 'Use incentives and award fees aggressively,' said Suellen Eslinger, a software engineer for the Aerospace Corp. of El Segundo, Calif. 'Don't be shy. I've found the government just doesn't want to pursue this.'

Many talked about the importance of aligning with best practices for software purchasing. The Data and Analysis Center for Software, DOD's software research clearinghouse, tracks best practices, highlighting 32 in particular, including using model-based testing, measuring progress and asking for demonstration-based reviews.

'Managers are aware of, but for one reason or another, choose not to implement these best practices,' said Ellen Walker, a DACS analyst who's writing a series on software best practices. 'Some barriers are legitimate, some are not.'

Walker recommends agencies pinpoint only those practices that meet their requirements and will improve their processes. The center's staff is constantly monitoring the list of 32 to make sure they're all still relevant. 'What is a best practice today,' she said, 'may not be a best practice tomorrow.'

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