GAO preaches on software development model

SALT LAKE CITY'In fiscal 2006, the Defense Department will spend as much as $12 billion on reworking software'40 percent of its estimated budget of $40 billion for research, development, testing and evaluation.

By contrast Motorola, as well as other large commercial companies, spends just a few percent of its budget on rework.

This huge difference, according to Carol Mebane and Cheryl Andrew of the Government Accountability Office's weapons acquisition audits practice, is based on a structured, replicable approach to software development that emphasizes requirements planning upfront. Three years ago Mebane and Andrew spent months studying how commercial best practices could be applied to DOD projects to control both cost factors and schedule slippages.

They spoke to an audience of software and systems engineers at the Software and Systems Technology Conference this week, revisiting the conclusions of their 2004 report, 'Stronger Management Practices Are Needed to Improve DOD's Software-intensive Weapon Acquisitions.'

The importance of improving software development efficiency can't be overstated, Mebane said. When the F-4 fighter was developed in the 1960s, less than 10 percent of its functionality was based on software; in today's development of the F/A-22, it's over 80 percent.

'Based on our discussions with individual [companies], three factors determine' the success of a software development program, Andrew said. 'A manageable environment, disciplined processes, and metrics, metrics, metrics.'

Creating a manageable environment means breaking software projects into manageable pieces, each generally with a six-month schedule.

'In DOD, a project can be two years, three years, even four years long. It makes it hard for a program manager to get his arms around a project, [or to] get a handle on costs,' Andrew said.

Software'and hardware'programs generally follow a specific, four-phase process, both in government and industry, Andrew said'requirements, design, coding and testing. In the companies they examined, the GAO team found that 90 to 95 percent of requirements for a software program were set in the first phase, and leading companies are willing to spend 20 to 30 percent of their resources on getting the requirements established.

Also, projects in commercial companies undergo frequent reviews with management, and software teams often conduct reviews weekly to identify where problems may arise. At DOD, on the other hand, major management reviews of software projects usually happened only once a year, or even two years apart.

'We were shocked at that,' Andrew said. But when GAO 'recommended that program offices should get involved more often instead of waiting for major reviews, there was resistance. ... The program offices didn't have access to [software development status information], and didn't look for it.'

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