An Interview with Watts Humphrey, Part 19: Starting at SEI
This interview was provided courtesy of the Computer History Museum.
The SEI Director Was Fired
Humphrey: I had some friends
-- dear friends -- who were at our wedding. My wife, Barbara, went to college
with the lady, and they live in
Booch: I don’t know.
Humphrey: He was provost at the
Booch: Well, that was good to know because you’d already quit your previous job [at IBM].
Humphrey: Yes, and I had even had
my retirement dinner, and everything was ready to go. It was a relief. So, I
arrived and then they say John Manley was out. The problem they had was that
what the SEI was doing, the Air Force didn’t want. They basically said, “This
isn’t doing anything for us.” They didn’t like the programs we had. Nothing
seemed to help them. They came out with a list of ten things that the SEI had
to do. It was a directive.They fired the director. By
the way, the technical people had also rebelled against him. So, he didn’t have
a whole lot of support there. He had been ousted. I think he’s at
Humphrey: Well, Jim Frame had left IBM and gone to run programming at IT&T. John had worked for Jim Frame at IT&T. That was basically his programming background. So, I don’t think he knew a whole lot about it, but he certainly was a good talker, but he didn’t seem to have a vision for where the SEI was supposed to go. In any event, he was out. Larry Druffel was leading the search committee for the director of the institute. One of the questions to me was did I want to apply, and I said no and I thought that was kind of interesting, without a hesitation, but I didn’t want to run a lab. I wanted to do what I was going to do, and that’s what I said about being freed up. So, they were doing the search and I got involved in all of that.
The Software Acquisition Problem
Temporarily, I was assigned to work for Bill Sweet, who was one of the top guys in the SEI at that point. Bill was a sweet guy and a nice guy out of industry. He didn’t really have a whole lot of software background, but a very nice guy. He had a lot of contacts in industry and that sort of thing. One of the key things that the Air Force had really pushed us to do: they had ten items and the top one on their list was to come up with a way to help on the acquisition process for programming. They wanted us to work with Lincoln Laboratory, or rather with MITRE Corporation and the folks up at the systems division. So, that was their number one priority for us to do.
So in any event, I agreed. Bill Sweet and I were going to do this study. We went up to meet with the folks up at MITRE and met with a whole bunch of people up there, with the systems division people and everything else, and they told us about a study. I’m sure it was classified.
It was a study of 17 major software procurements from the systems division, and they had all been in trouble. They had all been late. Average delay of I think 75%, which means a four year contract would have been delivered in seven years. So, everybody was in serious trouble. And so, we were supposed to look at that as sort of a test set as to how you do it better.
I said, “Well, how did you pick the 17?” They said the 17 were all our large systems. I said that means you don’t have a selection problem. They said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Everybody’s failing. So, there’s no way you’re going to be able to pick a good one out of this crowd.” I said, “The problem is no one is doing it properly.” I’ll tell you, this looked just like what I wanted to do. And so I kind of got their attention. I said, “Perhaps the thing we ought to do is to look for a way to identify what are the characteristics of people who are doing good software work?”
We agreed and so that’s what we did. We sat down and we put together a whole list of how would the acquisition people identify vendors who were doing competent software work. We put together this list of 100-and-some questions, and that’s what we did. We basically had questions, and people wanted to put in stuff that they were using.
So, we were looking
for things that distinguished between good and bad performance. I said, “If you
don’t have any evidence that this practice is associated with good performance
instead of poor performance, then we shouldn’t just drop in good ideas here. That’s
not what we’re after. We’re after things that really will say these people are
going to do competent work.” And I said, “There’s no evidence that I’m aware of
that says using
But, that was a pretty tough test because no one really had much. Basically, the only real evidence we had is what I have seen and what I did with the OS 360, because I knew what practices helped because we had put them in place, and I knew what worked on quality because we had put it in place and we measured the difference. So fundamentally, with all of that stuff I had gone through over the years, I was able to apply it right there and it was marvelous. So, we put together a list of close to 100 questions and then we got to an issue next, and I was really struggling with this.
I remember I was
sitting in the
The IBM Assessments
Well, let me back up
a step because when I had been running the Software Quality and Process Group,
my last job at IBM, I had gotten very interested in quality. I had heard about
Humphrey: And so Ron Radice and I had gone to the
Ron Radice and Jack Harding both worked for me. I had them put
together an assessment program, and they went out and put together the way we
were going to do it. The first one we decided to do was in the
We went out there and
talked to them, and they really didn’t want to have anything to do with it at
the beginning. We spent all day with them. We talked to the lab director; it
was fairly early, but he wouldn’t do anything until we convinced his staff. We
kept saying we weren’t going to tell anybody. This was it. It was for you. We
weren’t going to report on you. They finally bought it. So, we actually did an
assessment and it had a marvelous effect. The people really were motivated by
it. They focused on it. We did a bunch of assessments on a whole lot of labs
just as we did at the
In the Kingston
results, what you do typically is you go and select certain random projects,
and you’d look at the selected projects to see what they’re doing and what’s
going on. And so, we did the same. Of course, the next time we went back, we
selected whatever their current projects were. It was a different number, and
we got the results, and they had gotten worse.