Wanted: More Productive Programmers

Wringing more work out of computer programmers has become the top priority for corporations, according to a new survey of operations executives.

Just last year, the productivity of systems developers only ranked fifth on a list of priorities of technology executives in a variety of industries, including banking, according to CSC Index, a Cambridge, Mass.-based management consulting company.

Raising the productivity of programmers is the prime goal for 1991, according to 142 systems executives surveyed earlier this year by the firm, which is a unit of Computer Sciences Corp., El Segundo, Calif.

The two other top priorities, according to the survey: identifying and developing systems that support the corporation's strategy; and the rapid development of systems. Senior management, CSC Index concluded, is focusing on getting the most from their technology investments.

Two-Year Backlog

Most organizations report a backlog of at least two years on projects to build new computer systems. Most programmers work on maintaining current software, rather than developing new systems.

Since the average age of software programs is seven years old, corporations face the task of replacing them in the next several years.

Without a new approach to developing software, corporations cannot get a leg up over rivals by bringing products and services to the market faster. But these systems executives, charged with automating their corporations, must first begin by automating their own departments.

"Business executives seeking competitive advantage should look not only at restructuring business processes but also at overhauling the function that plays a key role in changing those processes - the systems development organization," said Nicholas P. Vitalari, vice president at CSC Index.

"Effective information systems delivery is crucial for achieving corporate goals around service, quality, or time to market."

Outdated Software

Virtually all survey respondents said that given the new, more competitive environment facing their firms, they must develop systems faster, more cheaply, and of a higher quality.

But technology executives encounter several hurdles in trying to boost software developers' productivity. The survey found that about three-quarters of computer applications are written in Cobol, a programming language from the 1960s. Cobol's design does not lend itself to streamlined systems.

Technology executives are interested in new computer programs that help programmers write software, called computer-aided software engineering (CASE). Some bankers have reported that CASE has cut development time by as much as 70%. But only 24% of the executives who responded to the survey said they were using CASE. Although the survey did not break out the responses from bankers, most big banks are known to be experimenting with CASE.

Cost Is Deterrent

The software, however, is expensive. CSC Index estimated the cost of giving a programmer CASE software to be $50,000 to $60,000. Given the economic squeeze facing many companies, technology budgets may not have room for the purchase of CASE software.

Nonetheless, the survey respondents ranked the use of CASE ninth on the list of priorities for the next 12 months.

Since CASE is new, few programmers are experienced in using it to build software. And few programmers are versed in new development techniques such as quickly creating a prototype of a software program, rather than delivering a finished product.

Most technology executives surveyed said changing the way systems are developed is among their greatest challenges.

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