More firms offer SPI training and services

SALT LAKE CITY The federal government's focus on improving software development and acquisition has spawned a cottage industry of vendors large and small that offer software process improvement (SPI) training and services to agencies and their contractors. At least a dozen such vendors were pres

SALT LAKE CITY—The federal government's focus on improving software development and acquisition has spawned a cottage industry of vendors large and small that offer software process improvement (SPI) training and services to agencies and their contractors.

At least a dozen such vendors were present at the Defense Department's Software Technology Conference, held here late last month. Although most vendors work with the Capability Maturity Model (CMM), developed by the Software Engineering Institute (SEI), available offerings have become more diverse as the model—and customer requirements—have evolved.

"We have moved beyond the early adopters in this business and into what we consider the early majority," said Brian Gallant, director of marketing and senior consultant at the Institute for Software Process Improvement Inc., Pittsburgh.

Years in the Making

The growth spurt started several years ago as first Defense and then civilian agencies began asking contractors and internal development houses to measure the maturity of their development processes using CMM. CMM describes five levels of maturity based on an organization's use of repeatable processes.

Among the vendors offering CMM-related services is PRC Inc., which integrates traditional SPI principles with the broader concept of Total Quality Management.

The integrated approach better fosters "corporatewide cultural change, which is what you need to do either [TQM or SPI]," said Cora Carmody, vice president of process engineering and the software engineer core competency director at PRC, a subsidiary of Litton Industries. PRC offers more than 130 hours in software engineering training and about 90 hours in quality improvement training.

The company also has developed a World Wide Web-based Process Asset Library, with more than a thousand downloadable assets, such as training materials, process descriptions and a database program for tracking projects. A PAL is viewed as a must-have for software organizations looking to use repeatable processes.

API, a subsidiary of Ada Pros Inc., Fairfax, Va., does a similar pairing of CMM and Military-Standard 498, an older DOD-specific set of guidelines for designing software systems, said API president Lewis Gray.

Mil-Std 498—which will eventually be replaced by an international standard—provides DOD developers with checklist-like guidelines to software proc-esses, while CMM captures best practices "that have been distilled to a higher level of abstraction," Gray said.

API offers courses in both areas, but "we will draw selectively from either field of standards to pull together the kind of components of a process that fits [an organization's] needs," Gray said.

The company also offers a course called Software Development Without Heroes, which teaches organizations how to put repeatable processes in place. Less mature organizations tend to center on key individuals to carry their projects rather than making their best practices part of the corporate knowledge.

API stresses the need for process "coaches." These are SPI experts who stay on top of an organization on a day-to-day basis as new processes are developed and deployed. The company either trains coaches or provides its own personnel.

Continuous Improvements

American Hytech Corp., Harmarville, Pa., helps organizations develop internal SPI programs so they can constantly adapt to changes in their environment. "They become their own internal process consultants and set up their own internal benchmarks," said Ron Mahta, president of American Hytech. "It's not a one-time event; process improvement is a continuous thing."

American Hytech was recently awarded a contract by the Air Force to conduct Software Capability Evaluations (SCEs), which rate an organization's software maturity on the CMM scale.

Robbins-Gioia Inc., Alexandria, Va., takes a similarly broad view. Customers should not expect quick fixes from SPI training and tools. "The real thing is to put the training together with the tools together with the experts [in a] side-by-side implementation of these processes," said Tony Baggiano, chief operating officer at Robbins-Gioia.

Robbins-Gioia teaches courses about moving from CMM Level 1 to Level 2. The key process areas in Level 2 generally are related to program management, which is the company's primary focus, Baggiano said. The course material was developed in conjunction with SEI. "We wanted to combine the best knowledge that comes from [SEI] with the best practices that come from us," he said.

Meanwhile, Integrated Systems Diagnostics Inc., a commercial spinoff of SEI, recently developed a new SCE methodology—SCE Version 3.0—that can be more easily tailored to a client's environment, said Joseph Morin, president of ISD, Pocasset, Mass. SCE Version 3 also is designed to be more extensive so that it can apply to the Software Acquisition CMM, the Personnel CMM and other model extensions.

ISD trains government personnel who conduct SCEs as part of procurement programs, conducts SCEs itself and does research and development work in evaluation methodology and software technology.

To some extent, the SPI market explosion has created a lot of confusion among government and commercial customers, Morin said. After hearing about a number of success stories over the last couple years, customers recognize the value of SPI, but they are not really sure how to go about it.

"There is still confusion about how much of this capability to build internally and how much to procure from outside sources," Morin said.

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