The SEI is a federally funded R&D center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that searches out and develops ways to make the writing of computer programs more rational and reliable. The result, it hopes, is software that simply works.
SEI was created by the U.S. Air Force in the mid-1980s to pick software contractors on some criteria other than the lowest bid; the cheapest software contractors often lacked the skills to write the complicated programs the Defense Department required.
The result was an SEI-developed scale from Level 1 to Level 5, a way of rating the software sophistication of companies and organizations. At the bottom, Level 1 groups have no planning, no process, no performance measurements, no ability to reproduce their programs. At the top, Level 5 organizations approach writing software with engineering rigor, and use detailed records and planning to upgrade their own performance constantly. SEI, which has turned over the rating of companies to commercial groups trained in its methods, says 70% of the nations software writing groups are stuck in the first two levels of its scale.
Most federal government projects require an SEI rating of at least Level 3. Only four Level 5 groups are known worldwide — Lockheed Martins shuttle software group in Houston; a unit of Being in Kent, Washington; a software group of Motorola based in Ban galore, Indian; and a company based in Japan.
Information about SEI's activities and software process improvement can be found at its Web site: http://www.sei.cmu.edu
A version of this article appeared in the Dec 1996/Jan 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.