Friday, July 30, 2010

Performing a Review of a Software Development Team

I've had several conversations this week about how difficult it is to provide reliable and consistent software development. Whether the team is an internal IT team, a product team, or a team of consultants, software development is rarely a pretty sight. It is sort of inline with the "making sausage" analogy. However, it doesn't have to be ugly so to help I thought I'd provide a checklist of attributes that every development team should consider.

Development Infrastructure

Each developer should be working in a virtual environment. Whether those VMs should live on the users computer or on the network is a debatable point. I believe the environments should live on the network to ensure they reside in the safest place possible. Residing VMs on the network also removes the dependency of a workstation being online.

Each developers’ local version of source code and folder structure should be identical so if someone were to go from developer to developer the location and folder structure would be identical.

There should be an integration environment to which a build is deployed at least once a day automatically. If the build fails the entire teams should be notified. At least one person should get an email when it succeeds. I’ve been in situations when everyone thought the build was succeeding reliably when in actuality the build machine was down. The integration environment should be identical to the production environment, e.g. web server, app server, database server. When the application is deployed it should tear down the servers to a base environment and rebuild it from scratch. At the very least, this environment provides developers with the ability to test their code in an environment that replicates production. Ideally, there should be automated QA testing that happens with each deployment. It doesn’t have to be full regression testing; an automated smoke test goes a long way.

Continuous integration is a must have. Finding out immediately when a developer has broken the build is vital. It’s so much easier to fix issues as they occur than to untangle them weeks after many developers have introduced their own flavors of bugs.

Development Methodology

This one is a big deal to me because I think very few shops actually have a development methodology. My evidence is anecdotal evidence from being a consultant talking with many clients and prospects and through interviewing software engineers. Most profess to having a methodology which turn out to be more of a set of development procedures than a methodology.

One definition of the term methodology is “the methods or organizing principles underlying a particular art, science, or other area of study.” Organizing principles is the key phrase. Organizing principles are more than a set of procedures. Your methodology should be well understood and those using it should evoke confidence that when the going gets rough that your organizing principles will protect you - as long as you stick to them. Abandoning your organizing principles, in whole or in part, when times get tough results in pain for you, your team, your management and your internal/external customers. In other words – everyone.

Estimation Techniques

My own little survival handbook is called “Demystifying the Black Art of Software Estimation” by Steve McConnell. In it, the author states that studies have shown that estimates are, on average, 30% of what the actual level of effort will be. Thus, know that your developers will significantly and consistently underestimate tasks. If you have never read a book on software estimation then it is a must.

The absence of formal estimation techniques could be the biggest failure point in software development. Communicate estimates in the form or ranges not in single values; e.g. 4-6 weeks. Include all the ancillary tasks such as user documentation, technical documentation, project management, etc. When developing the schedule consider vacations and holidays. And lastly, stand strong in the face of resistance from those who want the job done cheaper and/or sooner. You can negotiate rate, features, etc. but you can’t negotiate how long it’s going to take by magically lowering the number of hours and expecting good things to come from it.

Strong Project Management
A project manager, depending on the organization, is either just another resource keeping track of the project plan, or a leadership role on the project. The latter role requires the project manager to be an oracle and captain at the helm and is the one I prefer. “The captain” reference refers to that person as a significant influencer of decisions and direction. The oracle reference  refers to the ability to recognize patterns to identify risks and potential pitfalls. Project management is a combination of art and science. It also requires a strong personality who is willing to give bad news as soon as it is known. This isn’t easy for most people to do and lots shy away from it and futiley hoping things will work out.

Team Composition

We all want the best an brightest. But what’s often overlooked is how the team is composed. Being smart isn’t enough. Your team needs to be filled with smart people who fill specific roles and view the world in a specific way. People can be big picture oriented or not, detail oriented or not, organized or not, ambitious or not, etc. It is vital to architect your teams composition, meaning, defining how many of what types of people you want/need on the team. Teams need a variety of types to be successful. Know what those types are and fill them accordingly.

QA Process

The business should write the test plans and ideally they should be written before development begins. If you are an Agile shop, each user story should have test scenarios. There should be automated QA testing. If there are budget constraints there are free tools out there to leverage (Selenium and NUnit combined with Cruise Control will work fine in most cases).

Stakeholder Roles & Cross Functional Relationships

The business users should be heavily involved. My mantra to customers when negotiating for their time is “the quality of the end product correlates directly with the level of your direct involvement.” Given that they are often making a significant capital expenditure, they tend to get involved to whatever degree they are needed. The reality of the outcome as a result of their involvement, or lack thereof, just needs to be communicated.

Resource roles should be clearly defined at the beginning of the project. There should be no ambiguity with what’s needed from the business users.

Cross functional relationships should be nurtured during and outside of projects. it is important that the business and technical teams know that they are partners and together they will be succeed or fail.


The glue that hold all of these together individually and as a whole is communication. Everyone should be communicating to everyone often and transparently. When issues occur, make sure everyone knows. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a communication protocol. There should be. However, when Engineering disagrees that a bug found by QA is actually a bug, the engineer who developed the feature should have direct access to the QA engineer who logged the bug and the product manager who articulated the feature.

Customers should be involved on a daily basis (with Agile via the daily standup). This makes the weekly status report nothing more than a summary of what the customer already knows. Demo working code frequently to get feedback from the customer. At least one engineer should be in the demo to hear directly from the customer and be able to ask questions accordingly.

Transparency can be scary because we are afraid of the repercussions of allowing the customer to see our problems as they occur. What I’ve found is that customers are reasonable business people who understand the ups and downs of projects. The surprises are what get them angry. Transparency eliminates surprises and keeps everyone in the loop with everything that is happening with the project. Under this umbrella of openness the cross functional team inherently act as a unified team navigating the project towards a mutual success.

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