Helena Holmström Olsson, Associate Professor at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, is conducting research in the field of software engineering and management. Helena has studied improved and more flexible methods for software development since 2007, where much of the research is carried out in close collaboration with Ericsson AB. Helena also works, in parallel with the research collaboration with Ericsson, as dedicated programme manager for the first-cycle programme, Software Engineering and Management.
Helena Holmström Olsson's works in the field of software engineering and management, and her research has three interdependent threads.
One thread deals with improved methods for software development, in particular distributed methods. These methods involve the development team working together to produce software without being in the same geographical location. A second thread in Helena's research is that of agile methods. "Agile" describes the flexible and light-footed working procedures used. Helena's third thread deals with global software development, with the team members spread throughout the world.
"I have been working with Ericsson AB in my day-to-day research since 2007", says Helena. Ericsson was planning on introducing a new process that involved the company in methods of software development that it had not used before. These methods required new ways of thinking and organising, indeed - a new way of looking at one's co-workers.
"The part of Ericsson that we looked at changed from being an organisation that was very compartmentalised with each professional group working on its own, to become an organisation that worked in cross-functional teams." There had previously been a structure with a test organisation, a design organisation (the people who wrote the code), and an organisation of system architects. This was replaced by working groups in which all of these functions were included in one group. The group works together every day, and solves defined problems in which the skills of each member can be exploited.
The role of Helena Holmström Olsson has been to follow the development of the process, and she has studied the conditions that are required in order to ensure that the cross-functional team can work optimally.
"I classified everything they said during the interviews into one of three categories", says Helena. "One category involved what we call management commitment, which consists of having a clear vision and clear goals for the work. The second category described the degree to which the presence of management was maintained when the project was under way - how the vision and the goals were kept alive. The third category related to resource allocation, and my conclusion was that efficiency is best served by having one's main occupation and focus in a single team, avoiding becoming split between too many tasks."
Helena evaluated the cross-functional teams after they had been functioning for a while, investigating such factors as the obstacles and bottlenecks that the participants had experienced, and the difficulties they had faced. The method has now been in use for some years and the development organisation is working extremely well. Helena and her colleagues at Ericsson are now investigating what they can extract from the development organisation and spread to a greater part of the Ericsson organisation.
"I am interested in how to scale up agile and light-footed procedures", says Helena. "Flexibility is becoming an evermore important watchword in the IT industry. Customers now want short delivery times and short cycles - they prefer several small deliveries in rapid sequence, where they can order components progressively and provide feedback as development progresses."
The age of colossal projects with several hundred people involved has passed, not least because such large projects often gave, for a number of reasons, poor results. The customers often found it difficult when placing the order to define their needs precisely, and these needs may, indeed, change during the process. Thus the large systems were often out of date even before they were delivered. Other aspects that may have changed after the order was placed included the commercial climate and the availability of new technology. This means, according to Helena, that it is significantly better to take one system modification at a time and then re-examine the customer's requirements.
"We put a lot of work into setting priorities on customer requirements, in collaboration with the customer", says Helena. "It is always the most pressing customer requirement that is given the highest priority."
Helena's research group in software engineering and management has collaborated with Ericsson for several years: the group discusses and establishes project ideas, which are then funded by Ericsson. It was Ericsson's need to broaden the collaboration such that it included also these process ideas that led to Helena becoming involved as a newly employed researcher.
Helena Holmström Olsson is originally from Umeå, where she took first-cycle education in informatics. She started to work for a doctorate in Umeå, and after two years moved to the Viktoria Institute in Gothenburg. Helena came to the research group for Software Engineering and Management in 2006, after having carried out post-doc research in Ireland.
Even before Helena had arrived home from Ireland, she was contacted at the airport and asked whether she was interested in becoming programme manager for the first-cycle programme Software Engineering and Management. She had previously worked as teacher and supervisor in the programme on a casual basis. Helena accepted the role and has been an enthusiastic manager of the programme ever since.
"The Software Engineering and Management programme is an amazingly stimulating environment: the job of the programme manager is enjoyable, challenging and exciting."
We know we're getting it right, when companies call and ask if they can collaborate with us on the programme!
Helena believes that having a clear vision of the programme right from the start has contributed to making it so special. The founders of the programme had the will, ideas, opportunity and resources required - and experienced the special conditions that arise when one can get involved and create something from scratch.
Collaboration with industry has always been the principalcornerstone, and Ericsson, for example, has been involved right from the start.
"Obviously, this way of working demands much from the teachers - there's more to coordinate and to get working together - but it is so gratifying when everything works, for us who teach, for the students and for the companies. It is our task to create the conditions required to ensure that students are attractive to employers, and we work in project form in very close collaboration with industry. We know we're getting it right, when companies call and ask if they can collaborate with us on the programme!"
A large proportion of the students taking the first-cycle programme Software Engineering and Management are from outside of Sweden and Helena is slightly worried about the effects of introducing fees for students from outside the EU and EEA in 2011.
"I find it unfortunate that fees are being introduced and we will lose many students from countries outside of Europe. These are students that we really wanted", says Helena Holström Olsson. "We will, however, increase our marketing focused on new groups and countries, such as the Baltic states and eastern Europe, which are countries of which we already have good experiences. The programme is of high quality, and we hope that this will continue attract international students in the future. Having such a broad international spread of participants in the programme as we have had clearly gives an extra dimension and contributes much to the course dynamism."
Interview: Catharina Jerkbrant
Photo: Linda Winstedt
Helena Holmström Olsson combines her exciting research collaboration with Ericsson, with the equally exciting task of being the programme manager for the bachelor's programme in Software Engineering.