Tasktop Talks Up New Model to Boost Software Delivery, Productivity

Anything that describes itself as “the opposite of Facebook” is OK with me.

Enter Mik Kersten, the CEO and co-founder of Tasktop Technologies. “Vendors want to create ‘Facebook for software,’” he says, referring to more social ways to develop, deploy, and manage applications. “It would be a beautiful world, but Facebook is good at one kind of sharing.”

Instead, Kersten is part of a team that’s working on ways to cut across different silos in the software ecosystem—and unify them. “This is new infrastructure that sits between all the tools. Developers are not writing to each other’s [application programming interfaces], they’re writing to a common model,” he says. “This is the opposite of Facebook for software.”

Kersten isn’t talking about a new product. It’s more like a new framework for the software delivery process—and eventually the entire software supply chain—laid out in an industry manifesto. He calls the approach “software lifecycle integration.” And it’s a big topic of discussion at this week’s EclipseCon software expo happening in Boston’s Seaport District (where Kersten is speaking today).

What’s the ultimate goal? “That’s where the 10x is going to come from in terms of our ability to deliver software,” Kersten says.

Let’s back up a minute. When last we spoke with Kersten, it was late 2009, and his Vancouver, BC-based startup Tasktop—which now has an office in Austin, TX—was reinventing tools for software developers. More specifically, he built a profitable business around organizing developers’ work by tasks, rather than by files or folders or Web pages, with the goal of boosting productivity. The company’s original product, called Eclipse Mylyn, drew from research on neuroscience and user interfaces.

More recently, Tasktop has jumped into the bigger, badder world of application lifecycle management. This is the decade-old promise of a unified way to manage software from architecture and coding to testing to deployment and maintenance.

While there has been lots of progress on the developer end—agile methods, open-source tools, and so on—other parts of the chain haven’t always kept pace in compatible ways. Software testers, business analysts, project managers, and marketers, for example, each have their own tools and workflows—but they can get their wires crossed when talking to each other, especially if they’re spread out geographically (like a lot of teams are these days).

“There’s been a lot of focus on getting solutions right for each silo, but not for the overall business process,” Kersten says. Instead, he says, there is “complete data confusion,” which leads to bottlenecks, lack of traceability, and deteriorating quality of code, to the detriment of productivity.

“In traditional organizations, their software budgets are 10 times what they should be,” he says. “Their spend is snowballing while their output is linear.” (Think about banks or insurance companies working with thousands of developers.)

Tasktop can’t solve this problem on its own, of course. But it is proposing a new architecture for the software lifecycle that will enable the different constituents to communicate and collaborate in real time.

I can’t get into the technical details here, but the information flow—what the company calls a “collaborative lifecycle bus” with a “common data model”—has to work for tens of thousands of users, and across different vendors and data models. All that, plus it has to be seamless and invisible (should be easy).

To that end, the company is pushing a new open-source project called Eclipse Mylyn m4, as well as a new standards initiative. The big ideas are that the overall workflow can be organized by tasks and context—an extension of Tasktop’s original premise—and that “lean startup” principles can now be applied to the whole software creation process. That means “build, measure, learn” feedback loops and fast iterations for the overall process—not just for developers.

“This has the potential to have a similar impact as lean manufacturing,” says Neelan Choksi, Tasktop’s president and chief operating officer. And that has strong implications for global competitiveness, as more of the world’s industries become software driven. The U.S. is “going to be short on software developers in the next three years,” Choksi says, so we had better get our productivity up. (Choksi, who’s based in Texas, is a serial entrepreneur and former MIT Blackjack team member who sold his last company, Lexcycle, to Amazon.)

Speaking of productivity, Tasktop is bootstrapped to date, having taken no outside money still. The company has grown to 55 people, and its partners include big guys like Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, and CA Technologies.

But Tasktop is still a pretty small company, so it needs to influence a few of the big players to buy into its vision of collaboration and software delivery. “There is so much innovation on social networks. But we need tools to make Monday to Friday better,” Kersten says. “We are placing a big bet that the time is right, that this will catch fire now.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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