Opinion: Off-the-Shelf vs Open Source: “Meeting the productivity challenge”

At the recent QA Financial Forum, George Mackintosh, CEO, TestPlant (pictured) was asked how a bank can justify the cost of buying proprietary off-the-shelf testing tools, rather than free open source tools. Here’s his answer.

Productivity: we’re all going to be hearing more about it. And I will argue here that it’s a topic as relevant to the IT sector as any other.

I have taken my headline “Meeting the Productivity Challenge” from the title of a summit meeting I attended this month, organised by the Confederation of British Industry.

At the summit, industry leaders from the banking, retail and IT industries stressed the importance of improving productivity which has remained stubbornly almost static in the UK since 2008*. And this is a condition peculiar to the UK among G7 economies.

The financial services industry — banking especially — is focusing on productivity as its margins come increasingly under pressure and the costs of technology investment rise.

António Horta-Osório, Group Chief Executive of Lloyds Banking Group, spoke of the challenges of the “digital revolution”, along with the prosperity gains it affords. At another recent event I attended at the London Stock Exchange, Mark Berrisford-Smith, HSBC Head of Economics, observed that weak productivity was linked to weak investment.

So there’s a case for investing in people and automation to drive better productivity.

Let’s bring the debate to software quality assurance. In February 2015 I wrote a note to our TestPlant user community in which I said: “Low productivity in testing is not just a factor of low levels of test automation but also, and equally, because of the laboured use of custom frameworks and the extensive use of open source software”. Yes, open source is cool. But do you really want to re-invent the wheel?

Now, before you come to break my windows, let me tell you a story which draws an historic parallel. From 1979 to 1981 I worked as a production foreman at the Ford Dagenham engine plant. Zero automation there (bar a tele-printer relaying information from one end of my engine assembly line to the other) and engines were built manually.

The Ford toolmakers held the operation hostage as they tinkered with and tweaked the ageing machine tools. As a result, Ford began to duplicate production facilities in Germany and Belgium to secure supply and then outsourced toolmaking to external toolmakers.

The point here is to invest in your core responsibilities: building cars, not tools; finance software solutions, not test frameworks.

At the recent QA Financial Forum London (organised by QA-Financial.com) a keynote speaker and very senior manager in an international bank conceded that, in his terminology, his “unique assets” in test automation were being built by contractors whose tenure was not permanent. This compromised his automation initiative.

Later, at the same conference, I took part in a panel discussion, which happened to be on the subject of testing mobile banking apps. I was asked by a member of the audience how the business case for investment in commercial software could be justified to management, while open source software was free. “Management will not agree to that expenditure,” said the questioner. My response was that it would be better to invest in a reliable, supported, tool which helps you lay down a process and survive the effects of IT staff churn.

You can tell where I’m going! I’m making the case for the use of ready-to-use test automation tools: the case for buying Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) solutions as opposed to custom-built. My case rests on the productivity benefits.

If you and your business want to get on with the serious job of verifying and validating software releases, is it time and cost-effective to build your own test automation solutions? If you want to establish a process that stands up to technical, security and regulatory scrutiny, do you really want your automation assets walking off to their next contract? If you want to rely on support and a solution that evolves to accommodate new devices, browsers and operating systems, do you really want to be creating your own IP?

The recent Brexit referendum result has served to further sharpen our interests in building a better Britain in terms of productivity, whether your business is home-grown or foreign-owned. We have enjoyed an over-supply of labour in many areas of industry and now is indeed the time to invest in skills, processes and tools to improve productivity.

I make the case for off-the-shelf tools! Let’s start a debate.


*In Q1 2016 UK labour productivity grew by 0.5%, which was 17% below its pre-downturn level.

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