Why does my firmware need … a Quality Process?

This post is a little different from the others in this series. Not every firmware designer will benefit from using a Quality Process. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first thing we need is some background.

Quality Processes lost their good name in the bad olde days B.A. (Before Agile), and deservedly so. These were the days when we pretended to use the waterfall design methodology. Everyone knew that the emperor was naked, but developers and managers alike were buried under the lies. We all knew waterfall didn’t work, so we did what we do now (what actually does work), and we pretended to follow waterfall. We produced some documents whose only purpose was to satisfy our Quality Processes, and we did some other useless stuff too.

The fault here belongs with the layer of lies we constructed to bolster our pretence that waterfall described how we really worked. But Quality got stuck with the blame.

A Quality Process supports, nurtures and encourages the creation of quality firmware. [I won’t get stuck, as Phaedrus did, with trying to define “quality”. We all know it when we see it.] If it doesn’t, it isn’t a Quality process, by definition. Those olde processes, and the useless documents they made us write, didn’t help the quality of our firmware.

Another problem with some real world Quality Processes is that they were written by people who knew little of what quality firmware is, and how its creation could or should be encouraged. I have even encountered a Quality Process that deliberately included useless requirements, so that the author could discipline staff who didn’t adhere to them. Thankfully, this was not in the software business.

There is another problem too: including unnecessary details in necessary constraints. In one company I worked for, our process required that a particular text editor be used to produce a simple ASCII-text document. I pointed out to our Quality Champion that the requirement concerned the document format, and could reasonably be created with any text editor. He couldn’t see what my problem was, and chose not to consider the matter further. I made no further attempts at Quality Improvement while I worked with that team.

A good Quality Process places on developers only those constraints that are really needed if our firmware is to be of good quality. Most professional firmware designers could be helped in their work by such a process. People are the problem, not Quality. Good Quality Processes can be created, and your team deserves one.

Our Quality Process mandated the use of a coding standard, but did not specify the standard itself. Control of the coding standard (and its contents) was deliberately left under the team’s control; our process only required that the team should use one.

If your development is governed by ISO9000, then you must have a Quality Process. But you are allowed to have a good one! All ISO9000 requires is that you document how you create your firmware, do it, and record that you did. And that’s nearly it.

Your Quality Process also needs to show that your development is under control, and how it is kept so. For example, build release is not the time to discover a fundamental flaw in your design. We need to monitor how things are going while development is in progress. In our process, we kept the checks to a minimum. For each module (big or small), the designer had to present a design document for review. This document had two purposes: to verify that the design is good enough for development to continue, and to explain to a new member of the team what your module does, and how it does it. The only other check was a review of the module immediately before sign-off. We found these checks to be quite enough.

A final remark about Quality Processes: they should be written on the basis that the team is composed of professional and trustworthy designers, not reckless miscreants who must be kept in order by threats.

So, does our firmware need a Quality Process? This leads us to a Clintonesque ‘define-sex’ moment, as we wonder exactly what is meant by need. I think it’s fair to say that most of us could benefit from a good Quality Process, even those of us who aren’t required by our employers to have one. But a bad Quality Process is death to quality firmware. If you are subject to a bad process, get it changed, or move on, that’s my advice.

If you’ve got here, and now you’re wondering why I haven’t told you how to write a good Quality Process, you need help. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. To write a Quality Process, you must know what quality firmware is, and how its creation could or should be encouraged. If you don’t, seek out someone who does, and persuade them to help you. The end result really will help your development.

This is the fourth in a short series of short blog posts. Their main (intended) purpose is to stimulate discussion, so please leave a comment. Let us know what you have to add to the discussion! [Find me on Twitter as @Patternchaser.]

Why does my firmware need … a Quality Process?

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