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An Overview of the SPI Activities in Estonia

Ahto Kalja1 and Jaan Oruaas2

1Institute of Cybernetics
at Tallinn Technical University
Akadeemia 21, 12618, Estonia
ahto@cs.ioc.ee

2Estonian Information Technology Society
Kiriku 6, 10130, Estonia
jaan@eits.ee
 

Introduction

Estonia among many other nations has seen information technology (IT) as an important tool to improve the case of extremely fast recovery of Estonian economy. This paper gives an overview of the development of IT and the SPI activities in Estonia. After short introduction into Estonian IT history, the IT industry situation is presented. The state of the art of the SPI activities is given.
 

History of IT in Estonia

The first computers in Estonia were manufactured and installed at the end of 1950s and in the beginning of 1960s. The first computer centres were established in University of Tartu (1959), Institute of Cybernetics (1960) and Tallinn Technical University (Tallinn Polytechnical Institute). The computers installed in these centres were the first- and second-generation Soviet-made Ural and Minsk computers that were used both in scientific research and IT education at universities [1]. The teaching of programmers and other computer specialists started very soon after the computer centres were opened. In addition to popular Fortran, Algol and assembler languages, Estonian researcher groups developed different unique programming languages – Malgol, Velgol etc. These languages had Algol-based structure and were developed for special purposes as for teaching programming languages, solving financial problems etc. In the 80s specialists from Estonia participated in the development of standard software engineering, CASE tools, etc for different ministries of the Soviet Union [2].
 

Estonian IT Industry

The independent Estonia started eight years ago in a situation, where every ministry had its own Computer Centre developing the information infrastructure of the branch. The first private companies started as soon as it was permitted - at late 80's. At the beginning there were just small co-operatives. Most of the information processing projects used Soviet-made IBM 360/370 compatible computers and the corresponding software. Then the situation changed. At the beginning of Estonian independence (in 1991-1993) a lot of large IT projects in public administration sector were started and a number of private software and hardware companies were established. It was the time of intensive invasion of IBM PC clones and FoxBase(Pro) (pirate-copies as a rule) DBMS into all sizes of software projects. During the next period (1993-1996) a lot of new software and technical facilities were purchased and updated that brought about a rise in the quality of information technology (IT). It was the period when the fight against pirate software was started. Development during last years (1997-1999) has created a situation where most average and large projects use local area networks, client-server architecture, support data-warehouse paradigm etc. The percentage of using licensed software is increasing. All these changes are supported by the new legislation.
 

Estonian Software Companies

There is about 250-300 IT companies in Estonia. We can say with satisfaction that half of them are active in developing original software. The other half of IT firms are dealers of big western companies, PC producers etc.

A fact worth mentioning is that the two largest Estonian software firms are the information technology divisions of the two biggest Estonian banks (Hansabank and Estonian Union Bank). The IT divisions of these two banks employ over 100 programmers. Other software companies are mostly small, comprising 20-50 people. If we want to compare the software development processes at these companies, we should emphasise that the banks have the best available technical facilities. The IT divisions of banks don’t have notable problems with financing. It means that they can purchase the newest computers (Sun Microsystems server Enterprise 10000 (Starfire) in the Union Bank and HP equivalent systems in Hansabank) and the latest versions of such DBMS as Oracle, Sybase etc. It also means that the software development in these divisions can support all the programming novelties such as component technology, three level systems, data warehouse paradigm, Internet-banking etc. Last and not least - the banks employ a lot of Estonian best IT specialists. For example, Tallinn Technical University has lost dozens of very high-educated employees to the banks. Of course the software developing processes at bank divisions have their own problems as well. At one time the technological process seems as endless improving, at other times as a battle with fire and the project management and documentation tasks are not always solved the best way.

A group of companies that work on a good level thanks to the technological support from abroad are the representatives of large Western companies, such as Microsoft, Oracle, IBM etc. In this case the one who takes care of the software development technology and the training of people is the mother company.

Another group of companies is of kind that works to develop software for western clients. The work of these companies depends on the quality. It means that to survive and preserve clients they have to maintain the same quality level as western software houses. Regretfully these companies at the same time reduce their expenses, for example, in the way that they produce the software without project documentation!

Yet another group of companies works only for Estonian market. This group includes firms, which produce, for example, financial software for Estonian companies, Estonian language-specific text editors, develop Estonian registers or databases etc. Some of these companies are working very successfully and their projects’ software development processes maturity level is often "repeatable". Sometimes their processes (training processes, configuration management processes etc.) reach even the "defined" maturity level.

Unfortunately there are also many companies whose software development activities take place at the "ad hoc" level. The main reason for their survival is the shortage of qualified IT people and companies in Estonia.
 

The SPI Activities

No software process improvement plans have been established in general for IT companies and for IT departments of big companies (for example for IT divisions of banks) in Estonia. All the special improvement activities have appeared as ad hoc events. Such types of events include the participation of Estonian specialist in SPI courses abroad, western specialists’ lecturing at Estonian universities or at IT conferences in Estonia, interest of some companies about special improvement standards etc.

The Software Engineering Institute's Capability Maturity Model (CMM) for software process assessment, improvement and capability determination was the first methodology, which was learned and used to improve software processes in Estonia. The people from TTU’s Institute of Informatics and the Abobase Ltd were the first users of this technology in Estonia.

The next model, SPICE, as described below, is the next methodology, which has been introduced to Estonian specialists. Some leading software companies are striving to preparedness for ISO 9000 certificate. One computer manufacturer has it already for two years.

Tallinn Technical University has good contacts with Pori School of Technology and Economics. The delegation (3 people) from TTU visited on December 9-10, 1998 the Software Process Improvement Center (SPIC). Negotiations showed that there is an interest and possibility to organise a similar center in TTU and to start the co-operation in the field.

A centralised activity co-ordinated by governmental organisation is translating IT field ISO standards into Estonian language. Same standards have been accepted on title page methods, but the largely used standards, for example ISO/IEC 12207, Information technology – Software life cycle processes, have been fully translated and versions in Estonian accepted.
 

SPICE Courses

The idea to introduce SPI international experiences to Estonian IT specialists and companies arose at the beginning of 1998 from Finland. On one hand, the Software Engineering Centre OY and Software Technology Transfer Finland OY with Estonian company Software Engineering Centre AS decided to organise special SPICE standard courses for Estonia, but they were not able to find the minimum necessary number of participants. On the other hand, the Pori School of Technology and Economics is supervising a special Finnish-Estonian Bilateral development project "Teaching of Information Technology on the Bachelor, Master and Doctoral Level". The aim of this project is to transfer the Finnish experience to improve the role of University research and education from the point of view of the surrounding society; with the focus on software engineering but also some related areas were covered [3].

By joining the resources of these two projects it became was possible to organise the first special course (seminar) on Software Process Improvement and Capability dEtermination (SPICE) = ISO15504 in Estonia. The lecturer was Risto Nevalainen, from STTF Oy, Helsinki. This event was organised in Tallinn on April 2nd-3rd, 1998. Seven participants registered from Tallinn Technical University, 1 from University of Tartu, and 6 specialists from different companies (Aetec Ltd., Abobase Systems Ltd., etc.).

The seminar included the following topics:

This first seminar informed several IT specialists in Estonia on the possibilities and needs for software process improvement. The next similar seminar on December 17-18, 1998 was already much easier to organise. Again STTF Oy, Finland was in charge with Estonian Information Technology Society, Institute of Cybernetics at TTU and SEC Ltd, Estonia acting as co-organisers. The seminar gathered 20 participants: 10 from Tallinn Technical University and the rest (developers, experts, managers) from different software companies. Many of them work today in Estonia as process and quality developers and quality consultants. The following companies were represented: Proekspert Ltd, Aprote Ltd, Datel Ltd, Aetec Finantsvara Ltd. As the result of these two seminars Proekspert Ltd, who is DBMS Sybase representative in Estonia, decided to start to use the SPICE standard for software quality improvement. Proekspert also participated in the next SPI project - the INSPIRE.
 

The INSPIRE Project

The Estonian Information Technology Society participates in the project: The Initiative for Software Process Improvement – Regions Exterieures (INSPIRE). The INSPIRE project is supported by the European Commission as part of COPERNICUS program within the European Software and Systems Initiative (ESSI). The project was started on 1997 and has reached now its final stage.

The objectives of the Initiative for Software Process Improvement - Regions Exterieures (INSPIRE) project are focused upon providing access to the experience and knowledge of various software process assessment, improvement and certification methods, currently available in Western Europe, to SME's from the Central and Eastern European regions.

This focusing is caused from rapid political changes in these regions where the economies are now being committed to migrate to become market driven. As a result, companies from all industrial sectors must modernise their operational practises in order to be successful in competing for new tasks.

INSPIRE recognises that information technology, and software, in particular, will be one of the critical factors impacting upon an organisation's ability to modernise. INSPIRE will target those organisations in which the development of software is of key importance to the success of the organisation.

To address this situation INSPIRE will meet the following objectives:

Consequently INSPIRE will comprise much more than ordinary dissemination  - it will perform SPI Training and PIE's.

INSPIRE operates in Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Romania.

Four companies and mentors for some of them have taken part in the project. The companies were targeted to find out their critical business or development processes and make improvement plans. Two of them were software companies, one was a system integrator with its' own development department and the other a system integrator oriented on services and training. The following processes were improved:

All the companies found the results of PIE very successful and the used methods' useful even in cases of very small companies. The PIE made the business processes (i.e. future of the company) clearer for the managers.

The results of PIE have impact on companies from various sides. The experiment showing that typical business software development and supporting process could be easily investigated and assessed could be considered as technical impact. The fact that the Estonian companies’ software capability level profile reached the ISO15504 level 1 and 2 is even more important.

Measuring the following goals at the end of the project: extensions of business activities with clients, meaningful reduction in the average production time of the software in the project etc. have impact on the companies’ business side.

From the organisational side no large changes were made for the experiments. The companies’ employees did some overtime and participated in a few special courses.

The INSPIRE project had also a cultural impact. It showed in people accepting positively the concepts, technologies and management changes concerning software development and more generally in the company production improvement. Anyway all the software teams, mostly composed from young employees with spirit open to innovations, accepted the challenge and moved along in introducing changes to the old software practices.

Last and not least the impact on skills should be mentioned. During the project members of software teams gained significant and valuable new skills like how to use software project management tools according to established procedures. Many engineers involved in the engineering processes received extra training in the software project management, in using assessment standards etc.
 

Future Plans

Our activities in the field have lead to a deeper understanding of the SPI methods. At the same time several successor projects have been planned.
  1. Estonian Information Technology Society is intends to join to the new Software Process Improving plans of EU;
  2. Tallinn Technical University is prepared to co-operate more largely with the Software Process Improvement Centre in Pori;
  3. Estonian IT and special software companies are planning to continue software process assessment and improvement with the help of CMM and SPICE;
  4. Estonian IT standardisation committee has undertaken a task to adapt different international software quality standards.

Conclusion

Developing and running the quality system has helped our IT companies to control the development of our software and quality process. For the future a set of several successor projects have been planned. Inspired by the success obtained during first experiments, Estonian companies intend to continue its software improvement policy in the framework of more general quality strategies.
 

References

  1. H. Jaakkola, A. Kalja. Estonian Information Technology Policy in Government, Industry and Research. In: Technology Management: Strategies and Applications, Vol. 3, No. 3, 1997, pp 299 - 307.
  2. A. Kalja, J. Pruuden, B. Tamm, E. Tyugu. Two Families of Knowledge Based CAD Environments. In: Software for Manufacturing, North-Holland, 1989, pp 125 - 134.
  3. H. Jaakkola, A. Kalja. Improving IT Education in Estonian Universities. In: Portland International Conference on Management of Engineering and Technology, PICMET'97, Oregon, USA, July 27-31, 1997, pp 276 - 279.



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