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Tuesday
Aug072012

How strong are your development standards?

Having worked for a number of years on real-time process control systems (think: device drivers and management information applications for monitoring and controlling large-scale industrial processes such as oil & gas refinement, chemical and food production, etc.), the recent years I’ve spent working on financial software systems have highlighted quite a few differences for me with regard to how the two industries approach quality assurance.

Going into finance, I had a certain expectation that there would be many aspects of the discipline that would align quite closely with those of process control – the quantity of data to manage; the timely calculation and analysis of statistics; the automation of feedback control in response to stimuli, etc. – all would seem to be equally important when opening and closing valves and switches as they are when buying and selling financial instruments.

Human beings can die as a result of a hardware or software glitch in a critical control system of an industrial process. Back when I was working in that area, hardware and software manufacturers usually tended to be very much concerned about the quality of their offerings, and purchasers of those products almost always tested the crap out of them for long periods before trusting them in production. [Not so much for the management information systems, but certainly for the low-level stuff].

The catastrophic failure of a trading system (as we saw recently with a certain Knight Capital) is not, let’s face it, going to literally kill anyone, but the costs of those failures can adversely impact a great many people in many different ways. One would think that quality assurance, software testing and development standards would be of great importance in these systems, too. But my experience in finance has suggested to me that that is often not the case.

Anecdotally, I get the sense that the problem is perhaps worse with the in-house developments of practitioners (banks, funds), than it is with the products of ISVs, but really not by much, maybe because there is often much migration of personnel between the two.

And then, this week, having sent a device that’s roughly the size and weight of a Mini Cooper through space for nine months, we parked it safely on Mars. I say we, meaning human beings, but it was really mostly down to a select bunch of humans much smarter than we, over at NASA. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m still amazed that something like this is possible by the same species that gave us the Synthetic CDO.

So, what kind of development standards are required in order to pull something like this off? [Meaning the Mars thing, of course, and not the CDO thing.]

Some of them are right here, take a look: JPL Institutional Coding Standard for the C Programming Language

It’s a fantastic read – clearly written, very approachable and not long or dense (20 pages or so) -- but here’s the summary:

image

How do your standards measure up? Are they even documented as nicely?

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