inally, it was the software that let him down. After years of fist-clenching and hand-wringing, heated negotiations and political manoeuvring, Barack Obama launched his health insurance exchanges in the US early last October. Healthcare.gov, the US federal website, was supposed to make insurance buying easy. It didn’t. Software glitches seemed to plague the system.
Thousands of users were disappointed. The American tech company behind the website was shamed. Critics wagged their fingers and said ‘we told you so’. An Indian business newspaper even suggested Infosys should volunteer to clean up the project at no cost to earn some goodwill from the Americans.
But the alarm bells didn’t ring as loud for software engineers whose war chronicles almost always revolve around embarrassing software glitches. For them, this was just another story that attracted attention only because it involved one of the most ambitious projects of a most powerful man. Consider this. According to a 1992 estimate by researchers, Microsoft’s software has only one defect per 2,000 lines of code at the time of release. Yet, its reputation for buggy software can be explained by the fact that Windows 7 has over 40 million lines of code.
Fact: You can’t escape software bugs. And some bugs can be more devastating than others. In 2012, a software glitch cost Knight Capital $460 million; a few months later, the once promising company was sold off. This only underscored a 2002 study by National Institute of Standards and Technology, which estimated that software bugs cost the US economy $60 billion a year. “Those who live by software”, a joke among the techies goes, “will die by software”.
These are such anecdotes, numbers and wisecracks that once gave independent software testing companies a place of prominence in the Indian IT sector. Around a decade ago, year-on-year growth of 40 percent seemed to be a given, a former senior executive from RelQ, an independent software testing firm, says. A few years later, RelQ was acquired by American IT equipment and services company EDS. Applabs, its bigger rival, was even more confident about independent testing. Once when a journalist questioned the viability of pureplay software testing companies, Sashi Reddi, its CEO, pointed to the acquisitions made by Applabs. Just a year on, it was acquired by CSC.
It’s not just RelQ and Applabs. Several other Indian software testing firms that hoped to make a huge impact as pureplay testing companies either folded up or lost their identity after being acquired by IT services firms.
Take Thinksoft, which was acquired by German software testing company SQS in November 2013. Asvini Kumar, the founder, says one of the reasons he decided to sell his stake to SQS was because it was also a software testing firm, emphasising that there continued to be a large scope for pureplay testing companies. However, the message from the market was different—Thinksoft had been consistently trading at a fourth of its price prior to the announcement. (Asvini Kumar has since stepped down as Thinksoft’s managing director.)
But there is one company that still believes it’s possible to be a pureplay testing/assurance company—and also to scale up as one: Maveric Systems. What are they smoking?