Does your MERL Tech effort need innovation or maintenance?

by Stacey Berlow, Managing Partner at Project Balance and Jana Melpolder, MERL Tech DC Volunteer and Communications Manager at Inveneo. Find Jana on Twitter:  @JanaMelpolder

At MERL Tech DC 2018, Project Balance’s Stacey Berlow led a session titled “Application Maintenance Isn’t Sexy, But Critical to Success.” In her session and presentation, she outlined several reasons why software maintenance planning and funding is essential to the sustainability of an M&E software solution.

The problems that arise with software or applications go well beyond day-to-day care and management. A foundational study on software maintenance by P. Lientz and E. Burton [1] looked at the activities of 487 IT orgs and found that maintenance activities can be broken down into four types:

  • Corrective (bug fixing),
  • Adaptive (impacts due to changes outside the system),
  • Perfective (enhancements), and
  • Preventive (monitoring and optimization)

The table below outlines the percentage of time IT departments spend on the different types of maintenance. Note that most of the time dedicated to maintenance is not defect fixing (corrective), but enhancing (perfecting) the tool or system.

Maintenance Type Effort Breakdown
Corrective (Total: 21.7%) Emergency fixes: 12.4% 

Routine debugging: 9.3%

Adaptive (Total: 23.6%) Changes to data inputs and files: 17.4%

Changes to hardware and system software: 6.2% 

Perfective (Total: 51.3%) Customer enhancements: 41.8% 

Improvements to documentation: 5.5% 

Optimization: 4.0%

Other (Total: 3.4%) Various: 3.4%

The study also pointed out some of the most common maintenance problems:

  • Poor quality application system documentation
  • Excessive demand from customers
  • Competing demands for maintenance personnel time
  • Inadequate training of user personnel
  • Turnover in the user organizations

Does Your Project Need Innovations or Just Maintenance?

Organizations often prioritize innovation over maintenance. They have a list of enhancing strategies or improvements they want to make, and they’ll start new projects when what they should really be focusing on is maintenance. International development organizations often want to develop new software with the latest technology — they want NEW software for their projects. In reality, what is usually needed is software maintenance and enhancement of an existing product.

Moreover, when an organization is considering adopting a new piece of software, it’s absolutely vital that it think about the cost of maintenance in addition to the cost of development. Experts estimate that the cost of maintenance can vary from 40%-90% of the original build cost [2]. Maintenance costs a lot more than many organizations realize.

It’s also not easy to know beforehand or to estimate what the actual cost of maintenance will be. Creating a Service Level Agreement (SLA), which specifies the time required to respond to issues or deploy enhancements as part of a maintenance contract, is vital to having a handle on the human resources, price levels and estimated costs of maintenance.

As Stacey emphasizes, “Open Source does not mean ‘free’. Updates to DHIS2 versions, Open MRS, Open HIE, Drupal, WordPress, and more WILL require maintenance to custom code.”

It’s All About the Teamwork

Another point to consider when it comes to the cost of maintenance for your app or software is the time and money spent on staff. Members of your team will not always be well-versed in a certain type of software. Also, when transferring a software asset to a funder or ministry/government entity, consider the skill level of the receiving team as well as the time availability of team members. Many software products cannot be well maintained by teams that not involved in developing them. As a result, they often fall into disrepair and become unusable. A software vendor may be better equipped to monitor and respond to issues than the team.

What Can You Do?

So what are effective ways to ensure the sustainability of software tools? There’s a few strategies you can use. First of all, ensure that your IT staff members are involved in the planning of your project or organization’s RFP process. They will give you valuable metrics on efforts and cost, right up front, so that you can secure funding. Second, scale down the size of your project so that your tool budget matches your funds. Consider what the minimum software functionality is that you need, and enhance the tools later. Third, invite the right stakeholders and IT staff members to meetings and conference calls as soon as the project begins. Having the right people on board early on will make a huge difference in how you manage and transition software to country stakeholders later at the end of the project!

The session at MERL Tech ended with a discussion of the incredible need and value of involving local skills and IT experts as part of the programming team. Local knowledge and IT expertise is one of the most important, if not the most important, pieces of the application maintenance puzzle. One of the key ideas I learned was that application maintenance should start at the local level and grow from there. Local IT personnel will be able to answer many technical questions and address many maintenance issues. Furthermore, IT staff members from international development agencies will be able to learn from local IT experts as well, giving a boost in the capacity of all staff members across the board.

Application maintenance may not be the most interesting part of an international development project, but it is certainly one of the most vital to help ensure the project’s success and ongoing sustainability.

Check out this great Software Maintenance/Monitoring Checklist to ensure you’ve considered everything you need when planning your next MERL Tech (or other) effort!

[1] P. Lientz, E. Burton, Software Maintenance Management: A Study of the Maintenance of Computer Application Software in 487 Data Processing Organizations, Addison-Wesley (August 1, 1980)

[2] Reference: Jeff Hanby, Software Maintenance: Understanding and Estimating Costs, https://bit.ly/2Ob3iOn

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