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Agile, management tools help small team boost software quality

Scheduling, documentation, tracking bugs and –- most critically -– producing great products with a small development staff are the headaches Dan McRae, Comet Solutions Inc.’s software engineering manager, faces every day. I talked with McRae recently about how he’s combined best practices and lifecycle management products to get the upper hand on quality assurance (QA) and deliver strong products on deadline. Indeed, Comet estimates that these tactics have improved software quality by 25% and time-to-market by 10 to 20%.

McRae oversees a team of about 10 developers, two of which are dedicated to QA, although all do some QA work. They produce about four major and four point releases each year for Albuquerque, N.M.-based Comet, which provides design engineering workgroup software primarily aimed at enabling early simulation.

“Our biggest challenge is that we only have two full-time QA people,” McRae said. “The rest of us generate more features than they can thoroughly test. As manager, I direct what QA’s focus is. Some of those directions are based on word of mouth from our developers; but I also get direction from our chief technical officer, who points to things that are high-risk and need to be addressed. There are always challenges because there are always the latest defects that have the highest priority, and several of those pop before you can fully QA the previous ones.”

Comet’s development team uses agile development and automated tools to reduce the development and QA burden and improve quality overall.

Using waterfall methods for product development became very difficult as software and users’ needs became more complex. Under waterfall, it took too long to handle customer requirements and changes. Today, McRae’s team uses such agile techniques as daily standups to discuss current relevant issues, working on a two-week iteration and having release planning meetings based on Scrum practices.

While moving to agile processes, the development team found that its homegrown tools couldn’t evolve to improve the team’s ability to track defects, feature releases and scheduling.

“We had been using a home-concocted system for tracking defects and feature requests internally ourselves, and it wasn’t able to help us keep up with changes in customer requirements or QA,” said McRae. “That system didn’t have scheduling abilities, so planning was done on a kind of ad hoc basis.”

After scouting around for better tools, Comet’s team did a trial run on Rally Software’s Agile lifecycle management solutions. The trial led to adoption.

“Rally gave us a more robust system for defect tracking and feature request tracking. It also added scheduling, so we can schedule our development efforts, give a structured process to the collection, evaluation and implementation of feature requests as well as defects,” said McRae. “That gave us the opportunity to look ahead and plan our time out, knowing what features could be done in what time. Rally provided us with flexibility to swap and replace as needed.”

Today, when a new business need arises while development is in progress, McRae can look at the project plan in Rally and “see that we need to add certain features that require certain resources and determine what we can take out that was equivalent. Rally gave us the platform for making that judgment call without the guesswork that was part of the process before.”

Though the team has made great productivity gains, there are always improvements needed. Documentation is one area “that’s always a challenge,” McRae said.

“Any released software needs documentation, but if you don’t have a functioning product then documentation isn’t worth anything. There’s always the balancing act between building features and working on the product and trying to find time and the appropriate resources for the right level of documentation to be done. It’s something we don’t have a specific process to handle yet.”

McRae plans to look at Rally’s features to get some documentation metrics, such as finding which user stories and defects were completed. But he’d love to get his hands on an automated documentation tool. Any suggestions?

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Jan and McRae team - thanks for sharing the story - please make sure you connect with Cindy and the Documentation Discussion area on Rally's Agile Commons - - I re-posted this story link there too.
Hello Dan I'm a Documenter at Rally Software and while we have just upgraded our documentation to a Wiki, it is certainly not automated documentation. We do have automated documentation generated for our Web Services API by using JSP. The JSP is customized and driven off our meta data for Web Services, so there is definitely work on your developers part to get to this stage.