How Better Software Can Save the World

Achieving a quantum leap in IT productivity isn't merely possible, says Adam Kolawa, author of an upcoming book on IT productivity. It is absolutely essential.

About 30 years ago, I tried to calculate the mass of a glueball, a highly mysterious subatomic particle composed entirely of gluons, which are the infinitesimally tiny elementary particles that make it possible for protons and neutrons to stick together in atomic nuclei. As you can imagine, the calculations were extremely complex and required an enormous amount of computing power.

But I couldn't find the right software to perform my calculations. Instead of using something that "sort of worked," but was not quite exactly what I needed, I decided to build my own software.

That decision ended my career as a struggling theoretical physicist and launched my career as successful software developer. Pretty soon, I was working for big companies that were interested in my methods for developing high-quality software quickly and with relatively few bugs.

I tried to explain that I was only following the lessons I had learned from reading productivity gurus Deming and Juran and applying those lessons to the software development process. But I don't think the bosses really cared. They only knew that they liked what I was doing.

But it got me thinking. The company management was only getting a fraction of the value they might have received if they had been a little more interested in how I built the software, instead of just being happy they got what they wanted (on schedule and at a reasonable cost).

As you can probably tell, my sympathies lie with the geeks who write the code and their spiritual cousins who manage the various IT processes that are foundational to every business. But I also understand the challenges facing the suits who must answer to the board of directors.

Much has been written about the need for IT to develop a deeper understanding of business. For the past decade, CIOs have been urged, coaxed, counseled and exhorted to act more like CEOs, chief financial officers (CFOs), chief operating officers (COOs), and other C-level executives.

I'm not going to argue about the wisdom of that advice. But I'm going to suggest that it's only half the story. The other half, the piece that is usually missing from conversations about innovation, competitiveness and the opening new markets is this: It is time for business to learn more about IT.

Specifically, it is time for CEOs, CFOs, COOs, and other C-level executives to start acting more like CIOs.

Why now? Why should top management expend the energy required to learn more about IT, a large amorphous aggregation of multiple technologies that is constantly moving, changing shape and evolving into who knows what?

BusinessWeek Research Services recently polled 353 C-level executives spread across multiple sectors of the economy such as financial services, health care, pharmaceuticals, transportation, retail and manufacturing. One survey goal was determining which factors drive C-level decisions about IT. Nearly half of the executives surveyed were CEOs and precisely one-third were CIOs. Here is how executives ranked their top five crucial business goals for 2008, according to the BusinessWeek survey (which was not released to the general public):

  1. Sales and revenue growth

  2. Reaching new customers

  3. Improving customer service and retention

  4. Increasing profit margins

  5. Increasing market share

In today's economy, it is virtually impossible to achieve any of those goals without first having the capability to develop and market brilliant new products and services that customers will absolutely adore.

Rapid innovation and first-rate product creation require tight working relationships between the C-suite and IT. You don't have to be joined at the hip, but as one CEO recently told me, "If you're not meeting daily with your CIO, you've got a problem."

Let's face reality: IT is to commerce in the twenty-first century what wind was to the Royal Navy in the eighteenth century, what coal was to the Industrial Revolution, what philosophy was to the Enlightenment, and what art was to the Renaissance.

Okay, you get the point. IT is essential and indispensable. Not only is IT central to every organization, it radiates through every part of the organization. IT touches everything. IT is everywhere.

Now is the time for top managers to meet their CIOs halfway and learn to walk a mile in their shoes. With that thought in mind, I began writing a book in 2007. My goal was to generate a short text that would help CEOs and other top managers develop a better understanding of the basic concepts of information technology. The limited scope of my intentions was captured succinctly in the book's original title, Demystifying Information Technology.

But there are unexpected twists and turns in any creative endeavor. As I wrote, I realized that my original premise was too narrow. I also realized that many of the straightforward messages that I initially had planned to present would be more valuable if I explained their bedrock principles in greater detail.

Gradually, a new book emerged. The Next Leap in Productivity: What Top Managers Really Need to Know About Information Technology (John Wiley & Sons, January 2009) is really two books melded into one. The first book is about IT strategy; the second book is about IT tactics.

As someone with a doctorate in physics, I cannot help but see the world through the prism of my academic training. So whenever I observe a discontinuous change, a virtually instantaneous increase in some value or other, I tend to call it a quantum leap, a term borrowed from the revolutionary theory of quantum mechanics; it was one of the signature scientific advancements of the twentieth century. In layman's terms, a quantum leap is any radical improvement from an initial condition to a new and better condition, without any intermediate steps.

I believe that two "quantum leaps" can occur when IT is properly understood and properly managed. The first such quantum leap, which I call the Developer Leap, describes the radical improvement in the productivity of individual programmers and programmer teams when they build software the proper way.

The second quantum leap, which I call the Enterprise Leap, describes a radical improvement in the productivity of the entire enterprise that can arise, with proper executive action, after the first leap has occurred.

My hope is that when C-level executives understand the inherent potential of these two leaps, they will perceive the tremendous opportunity before them. In any event, I'm looking forward to debating the question implied by the subtitle of my book: "How much do top managers really need to know about IT?" My answer, of course, is: As much as is reasonably possible to know.

Adam Kolawa holds a PhD in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology, and has been granted 16 patents for his recent inventions. In 2001, he was awarded the Los Angeles Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the software category. Kolawa is the coauthor of Bulletproofing Web Applications (Hungry Minds, 2001) and Automated Defect Prevention: Best Practices in Software Management (Wiley, 2007). He is the author of numerous scientific papers on physics and parallel processing.

Kolawa is CEO and cofounder of Parasoft, a global provider of software solutions and services that help organizations deliver better business applications faster by establishing quality as a continuous process throughout the software development life cycle.

This article was adapted from The Next Leap in Productivity by Adam Kolawa.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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