Case Study: Software Lifecycle Management Tools Get a Handle on Change

Rapid growth pushes software firm to a more mature development process

Software configuration and change management tools promise to help streamline and automate the application development process. Sometimes, however, it’s not technical barriers that make rolling out such tools so challenging—it’s changing corporate culture.

Rosetta Biosoftware, an 80-person company based in Seattle, develops complex software informatics solutions for pharmaceutical and life science research organizations. Changing the management of its product development process became a necessity as the company grew.

From its roots as a startup during the dot-com era, Rosetta and its products had matured to the point where the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is using the company’s flagship product, Rosetta Resolver, as a platform to analyze data submitted through the government’s Voluntary Genomics Data Submissions program.

In addition, Rosetta customers—many of them pharmaceutical companies trying to reduce the time and cost of drug development—were starting to face more regulatory pressures. They were thus interested in having Rosetta deliver more well-defined and documented software, according to Jim Pearson, manager of quality assurance at Rosetta.

To streamline and automate its software management process over the last several years, the company has gradually moved to a set of three well-integrated software lifecycle management products from Borland Inc.: Caliber (for requirements management), StarTeam Enterprise Advantage (for change and configuration management), and Together (a visual modeling platform that developers use).

Rosetta’s gradual integration of Borland’s products into its processes reflects the way the company has grown, Pearson says, as well as the evolving maturity of its software development process. “When Rosetta started,” Pearson notes, “we were targeting our product to the basic research areas of life sciences.” But evolving use of the company’s products by customers into later stages of drug development research has pushed Rosetta to a more mature software management process.

The software Rosetta develops is complex; although the company isn’t large, a project might last 18 months or longer and involve a dozen or more developers. A wide range of employees use various parts of the Borland suite at Rosetta. Caliber users range from product marketing to research groups developing prototypes, to technical publications and quality assurance groups. Borland’s Together, the visual modeling platform, is mostly used by developers. Because StarTeam is used as the company’s document management system, as well as for source control and change management, it’s used by almost everyone in the company.

Rosetta runs Borland’s products on three Windows application servers, networked to a Sun Solaris server used for hosting supporting databases such as Oracle PeopleSoft, and a customer support system.

Borland’s well-defined and open API allows Rosetta to do some customizations in displaying information, and to use some of StarTeam’s capabilities in a different way. For example, Rosetta uses StarTeam for project plans, for storing the organization’s policies and procedures, and more. Using StarTeam for document management allows electronic approval of policies and procedures. “We’ve developed a really nice document management system, and at a low cost” Pearson says, “using [StarTeam’s] API and SDK, and also leveraging [its] internal controls.”

The other software lifecycle management solution that Rosetta considered was IBM Rational ClearCase, also a broad suite of change and configuration management products. Two factors sold them on Borland, however: First, Borland had a foot in the door already because Rosetta had used StarTeam as its source-code repository and change-management product for years (Borland acquired StarTeam, along with Caliber, from StarBase in 2000). Second, Borland’s products were significantly less costly than IBM’s.

Culture Challenges

Changing company culture, rather than any technical barrier, was by far the biggest challenge in rolling out the new products. Caliber, for example, is used for automating specific processes, such as tracking product requirements from start through final delivery. Once the business, technical, functional, and operational requirements are entered into the Caliber system, workers across the organization can map their individual efforts back to the requirements and collaborate with each other more effectively.

Although the benefits have been substantial, Pearson is frank about the challenge of convincing developers and others to use a new product that essentially requires additional work at first: “It’s really, really hard.” Integrating Caliber into Rosetta’s workflow has taken time because it involves changing basic corporate culture. “We had to train people about the value of [entering] requirements. … We started as a small company [with a] fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants philosophy, and not a lot of well-defined processes.”

He’s found it useful to publicly identify successes, a project at a time, until others start to catch on. “It’s almost like bootstrapping yourself into this process,” he says. “Initially, I talked about some of the performance gains and turnaround gains that this software can help with,” he says. “But early on, when you’re just implementing it, it’s the other way around—it actually takes more time to develop product.”

Pearson also works backward from customer feedback to the development process, in order to report actual progress: “OK, with this project, we’ve reduced … bug reports from the field.” When an issue comes in from a customer, Pearson says, by tracing the specifications originally entered into Caliber, “we can go back and really understand what’s going on.”

His work encouraging use of the Borland suite isn’t done: “There are people we still need to push along.” He’s now expanded Caliber from a single initial project to two other substantial ones, and is starting to see progress. “What really makes me happy with these new projects, right off the bat, is that we have developers and product marketing managers really on board and talking about requirements and how they’re going to document these projects. … It’s great.”

Even now, however, “There’s a ways to go,” he says. “There’s always a temptation to look at the project schedule and say, ‘Oh, we need to do this in three weeks? Let’s not write any specs and just start coding.’”

Pearson has no solid numbers on the return on Rosetta’ investment in the Borland products over the past few years, partly because such numbers are difficult to calculate. “But I do have some subjective evidence,” he says. Since the company introduced the new products and began pushing toward a more sophisticated software development process, customer metrics show that the quality of the end-product has improved.

The tools aren’t the only factor, Pearson stresses—what’s also important is the change in the underlying culture. “Anybody can buy these [products] and set them up,” he says. “What’s really important is getting everyone on board, from top management on down, to really understand what it means to have a quality organization throughout the process.”