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Why software projects fail and more will fail in 2009

Why do software projects fail? There are many reasons –- and they’re spelled out below –- and 2009 may bring more failures than usual as budget cuts spur project managers to make cuts in the wrong places. So said software quality consultants Lawrence Oliva and Karen Johnson when I talked to them about 2009’s software quality landscape.

Human error causes most software project failures, said Oliva — senior consultant/program manager with CH2M HILL, an Englewood, Colo.-based engineering and program management firm — so most are avoidable. Here is his list of the mistakes he sees most often and his comments:

1. Unclear requirements: “Most people don’t know what to build because they’ve never defined it. When they build the software, it fails because it doesn’t meet people’s needs.”

2. Overly optimistic and/or unrealistic schedules. “People rush or skip things if the schedule isn’t realistic. Also, companies are panicking due to the economy. They’re compressing projects and schedules.”

3. Lack of user input: This links back to requirements mistake #1. “Developers don’t talk to people who are going to use the software.”

4. Lack of executive sponsorship and support: “When management doesn’t support and protect the project, it can often be undermined by internal politics and budget cuts.”

5. Turnover and layoffs: “Projects often fail when key people leave the project early in its lifetime.” Companies’ modern habit of laying off senior and, thus, higher-paid workers -– such as senior developers –- in favor of less experienced, lower-paid workers puzzles Oliva and me. “It doesn’t make sense, because the more experienced people take a humongous amount stability, experience with them that usually isn’t available any other place,” he said. “That hurts a project and hurts a company.”

I agreed, noting that the time lost due to less experienced workers’ mistakes and learning curve probably negates the savings in salaries paid. Oliva and I discussed that companies could do total-cost-of-layoff analyses; but Oliva said companies probably wouldn’t take the time to do that. “In a poor economy, companies often make hasty and project-wrecking decisions,” Oliva said. 

Besides layoffs, the recession is leading to other foolhardy cutbacks. It seems obvious that skipping testing is a path to software project failures, but software testing consultant Karen Johnson is seeing companies do just that. Johnson told me that companies are cutting down on or even skipping software testing altogether as a recessionary cost-saving method. If this trend continues, look for more embarrassing outages caused by admitted software failures or for “undisclosed reasons.”

While researching software failures, I read a Code Diesel post on software failures by developer Sameer Bora. To Oliva’s reasons why projects fail, Bora adds these common mistakes: sloppy development practices and poor reporting. Bora also created a handy chart on why software projects fail. Printed out or used as a screensaver, even, it could provide a visual reminder of project pitfalls.

Now it’s your turn: Do these reasons for failure ring a bell? Can you think of others? Let me know by commenting below or writing to me at editor@searchsoftwarequality.com.

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