If you need a quick fix, call a hacker: Business users' computing needs can change fast. Software producers may soon be forced into short cuts to keep up, writes Darrel Ince

JUST WHEN we thought we had seen the end of hackers, a development comes along that could bring about their rehabilitation. One of the problems facing IT users is that systems' requirements change quickly. For example, the marketing division of a bank may think up a product, say a new portfolio investment package, that requires computer support, although the package itself has a life expectancy of only a few months. IT support for such packages is almost invariably needed in a few days and has to mesh with the bank's existing systems.

Another example is a company faced with a new marketing strategy from a rival that threatens to make massive inroads into sales. A response, supported by the company's IT system, must be made soon. Rank Xerox, for example, is attempting, in a relatively short time, to jump ahead of rivals in office equipment manufacture by making closer links between the customer and its sales, service and administration divisions. This sort of reorganisation always entails substantial modifications to IT systems.

The culture in both British and American software development companies is to have a carefully staged process whereby requirements analysis is followed by system design, detailed design, programming and testing. Each stage normally generates quite a large quantity of documents: requirements specifications, feasibility studies, test plans, quality plans, test procedures and so on. Unfortunately, the demands being placed on IT systems are such that a working system or a major modification is often required within a period which would normally be a fraction of the time used for a conventionally developed system.

I recently organised a workshop for senior IT staff about what research needs to be carried out in IT over the next decade to solve the problems they are encountering. One of the principal messages from that workshop was that a main reason for lack of confidence in computing departments and outside suppliers was that they were seen as a brake on innovation. That software producers who used current development methods could not respond quickly enough to users' demands.

This is a message the Department of Trade and Industry has been hearing over the past two years. In response, it has decided to mount a special initiative to promote the development of research that would enable users, often via their IT departments, to modify their systems rapidly.

However, a number of groups could be adversely affected by this change in emphasis. First are those that advocate a careful approach to development of software, involving planning, requirements analysis, design, implementation and testing. This includes vendors of methodologies and proponents of total software quality assurance who are seeking to enclose their software projects within quality systems that insist on a large amount of documentation being produced.

The second group that would be affected are academics. For the past 10 years software engineering courses have stressed that software production is like any other engineering process and needs a carefully staged model of development. Many academics have ignored the fact that the techniques they have been teaching have not addressed the business objectives of the customer; that while the methods that are taught enable systems to meet technical requirements, they often lead to systems that fail because they do not respond to business requirements.

Software developers could rightly protest that they are now receiving contradictory messages from customers: of getting a system correct and at the same time getting it delivered or modified quickly. An understandable response from them would be to say that you can achieve one or the other - but not both. Fortunately, new software development techniques that have been piloted in the United States and the UK by companies such as Oracle and Yourdon are beginning to address this dichotomy.

These methods are based on a concept known as evolutionary development. With evolutionary development a customer communicates his or her requirements to a developer who quickly produces a prototype that can then be shown to the customer. Normally, this prototype is produced using a technology that results in quick delivery at the cost of poor response time.

A process then occurs whereby the user repeatedly suggests modifications, which are then incorporated into the prototype until, eventually, he or she is happy with the product. Normally, what has been produced is a system that fits well with the business objectives of a company but is deficient in some way: it may contain a number of annoying little errors, or it may be inefficient in terms of response time or memory requirements.

However, in a quick-moving business environment, where millions of pounds are often at stake, an upgraded hardware purchase can usually take care of the second problem, while the prospect of gaining a large market advantage over a competitor often drastically reduces the irritation that occurs with minor errors and response-time problems. Once the prototype system has been developed, the software delivery team can eliminate the errors, document the system according to the best dictates of quality and deliver a better version of the system to the user. This improved version can then be used as the basis for further changes.

Without this tidying up a system will become more and more baroque in its structure, to the point where even hackers would take a long time to modify it. What is surprising about the demands now being made by users is that they mark the probable rehabilitation of the hacker and potential formation of a strange alliance between two diametrically opposed cultures. Industry analysts are now coming to the conclusion that both conventional software developers and hackers will be needed in the future: the hacker for quick delivery or quick modification and conventional development staff to tidy up the mess that has been made.

The implications in terms of skills, job satisfaction and effect on the quality systems software developers use is massive.

The author is professor of computer science at the Open University.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
An Apple iPhone 6 stands on display at the Apple Store
businessRegulators give iPhone 6 and 6 Plus the green light
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pricing Analyst

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

Data/ MI Analyst

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

Project Manager with some Agile experience

£45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

Web Application Support Manager

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reigate...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style