Whether you’re an experienced project manager looking to transition into the software industry or a software engineer looking to take on a management role, there’s never been a better time to consider a role in software project management.
According to Indeed, the median salary for software project managers is more than $126,000 per year. What’s more, the projected job growth rate for this discipline is 11 percent, compared to seven percent for all management occupations.
Professionals looking to enter the field of software project management will find that many of the same principles that apply to project management in other fields translate to software, said Johan Roos, a professor in the Northeastern University College of Professional Studies.
“The work breakdown structure is the same irrespective of industry. Whether your team is working on a software application or an office building,” Roos says, a sprint is the same—a 1- to 4-week process of building one part of a larger project that may ultimately take months or years to build. “It’s how you organize the work and the people and the deliverable at the end.”
These 15 tips for managing a software project through the entire development life cycle will benefit both new and veteran software project managers alike.
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15 Tips for Managing a Software Project
1. Assemble the right team.
Ideally, you will have a role in hiring the members of your organization’s software development team to ensure that their skills and experience align with your needs. If the developers are already on board, assess their professional and personal attributes in order to determine which developers are best suited for a project’s particular tasks and objectives. When team members are able to focus on their strengths, they will complete tasks faster, which will help the project manager keep the work on time and on budget.
2. Define the project scope.
The process of developing a project scope statement will define the business needs of the project as well as identify boundaries and constraints. This ensures that all key stakeholders have a clear understanding of what the project will do and how it will be built. For the development team, it reduces the likelihood of “scope creep,” or the addition of desired features—and additional work—above and beyond what was defined in the scope.
3. Define deadlines and milestones.
The major milestone is the day the software project must be finished, but there are many deadlines in between the start date and the end date. It’s the responsibility of the software project manager to map out a project management plan, including deadlines and milestones, paying careful attention to which features of the software depend on others in order to work. Focus on four key phases of the development life cycle: Initiation, Planning, Execution, and Closure.
It’s especially helpful to delineate which deadline corresponds to which sprint., which will help with the allocation of resources for each sprint. Further, project managers can identify potential challenges or bottlenecks, such as a feature that may be particularly challenging to build or a feature that will require a completed design from the user experience team.
4. Establish individual and team goals.
The software development team’s goals are closely tied to the project’s overall deadlines, milestones, and business goals. These will be short-term goals, such as the desired output of a sprint, as well as long-term goals, such as the completion of a software module. Communicate these goals clearly and display them visibly, as a reminder to the team (and any new hires who join while the project is in development) of the overall objective.
In addition, a software project manager should set individual goals for each developer. It’s important to balance the business goals of the project with personal development goals, such as learning a new skill or taking on some leadership responsibility on the development team. Set up recurring one-on-one meetings to evaluate these goals and adjust as necessary.
5. Set the tone right away.
Setting the right tone for a software development project means telling the team that you will provide trust, support, and transparency—and that, in return, the team will provide software code that meets both project requirements and quality standards.
When you offer this support and encouragement in the first few days of the software development life cycle, you set the tone for collaboration and high-quality work for the duration of the project.
6. Communicate early and often.
Communication with the development team should take the form of formal meetings as well as more informal check-ins. Scheduled meetings provide a structured way to share information, especially from stakeholders whom the project manager engages with on behalf of the development team. Meanwhile, informal conversations let a project manager ask questions, proactively listen to team members, and build rapport. When issues arise, ensure the development team that management or other stakeholders will be notified.
Frequent communication helps developers feel like valued members of the larger project team. They may be working independently, but thanks to the project manager, they are not working in isolation. Think of it like directing a play: When everyone reads from the same script, everyone has the same cues and the same lines, and there are far fewer questions about what has to happen for the play to run smoothly.
7. Make meetings meaningful.
Daily meetings, commonly called “stand-up meetings,” are a critical part of the software development process. These meetings allow the team to review the previous day’s work, discuss the current day’s tasks, and discuss progress toward requirements, milestones, and KPIs.
It’s important to keep meetings short and productive. The longer the meeting, the less time the software development team has to complete its tasks. Create an agenda for each meeting, share it with all attendees in advance, and stick to the agenda as precisely as possible.
Find a time that works best for everyone. If your team works best in the afternoon, schedule meetings for the morning so you don’t interrupt their flow. If your team is in multiple time zones, consider alternating the time of day for the meeting so one group of developers won’t feel like they’re being overlooked.
8. Gather requirements, then let the team work.
One of the biggest responsibilities in software project management is to gather requirements—to understand what users want the software to be able to do. As noted, this means meeting with internal and external stakeholders to understand their needs and determine what to build to meet those needs.
When you have requirements, give them to the development team for feedback. Experienced developers can tell a project manager whether something makes sense, needs additional explanation, or simply won’t work.
Once requirements are set, a good best practice is to let the developers write code. Take care of the non-technical and administrative parts of the project, and remain available to support the development team as necessary, but do your best to stay out of the way. Interruptions, complications, or complex processes for accomplishing simple tasks will only lead to delays.
9. Identify measurable and practical KPIs.
Short for Key Performance Indicators, KPIs are the metrics that define the success of a software project. KPIs will vary from one project to the next, but they are often discussed during the process of gathering requirements, and they help the development team assign a quantitative value to how a software application needs to perform in order to support those requirements.
For example, a metric for an e-commerce application might be the number of online shoppers who are able to place an order without crashing the app. For a research application, it might be the number of seconds it takes to retrieve results after a user hits “submit.”
10. Keep the team in the loop.
While the development team works through the sprint, the project manager remains in constant contact with key internal stakeholders; these range from user experience designers and data analysts to sales and marketing and the executive team. In addition, if a software product is being developed for use by a specific customer or set of customers, the project manager talks to those organizations frequently.
These meetings help the project manager ensure that the developers’ work continues to meet the needs of the project and the customer. When stakeholders want a new feature or a different deadline, for example, the project manager has to relay this feedback to the development team and reset their priorities accordingly.
11. Set your team up for success.
Effective software project managers know the strengths of their developers and assign them to tasks accordingly. You don’t need deep technical knowledge of their skillsets, but you should know what they do best and what they like to do most. Some projects will offer you the latitude to give developers a chance to learn a new skill, while others may have time or priority constraints that force you to call on a developer’s particular strengths.
When giving developers work, try to avoid task-switching; that can make it difficult for team members to focus, which can lead to delays. In addition, try to avoid adding more people to a project unless absolutely necessary. Too many cooks in the kitchen could spoil the code. Instead, try to reshape the mindset and best practices of the team members who already know the project and its requirements.
12. Manage risk and resolve issues quickly.
Risk is inherent in any project. The key to successful software project management is identifying potential risks in advance, as this saves both time and money when mitigating them. Every time you outline a requirement, set a milestone, or define a task, think about the risk that could be involved—insufficient data, bugs in the software, incomplete designs, potential lack of buy-in, and so on.
Next, think about how you and the teams you manage will address each risk. Think about the priority level for the risk as well—the wrong color in the user interface, for example, is likely to be less of a risk than the wrong information in the database. Resolve issues as soon as they arise; this reduces the risk of a small issue becoming a massive problem, and it allows the development team to return to its scheduled tasks faster.
13. Test often, then test again.
Testing software throughout the development lifecycle, also referred to as quality assurance, is critical to project success. Software that is slow, full of bugs, insecure, or difficult to use is very hard to sell.
At a minimum, software should be tested at every milestone. The team that tests the code should be different from the team that wrote the code. Along with verifying that the software continues to meet the project requirements, tests should focus on the application’s stability, security, and speed. Any failures or problems with the code should be addressed immediately.
14. Recognize hard work.
By its very design, software is meant to simplify complex tasks. But achieving this is by no means a simple process. Not only is it challenging to write code—a single misplaced character in a set of code can cause an entire application to crash—but understanding how a software program solves a problem or completes a task often requires deep analytical thought. And while it’s easy to see when the sales or marketing team has a “win,” it can be harder to quantify this for the development team.
That’s why it’s important to recognize the accomplishments of the development team throughout the project. Use scheduled meetings as a forum for recognizing team members who have devised creative solutions to complex problems. Invite them to demo their solution or discuss how they approached the problem. Share successes with colleagues outside the development team to show others how the team is making progress.
15. Evaluate the project regularly.
Since the software development lifecycle takes place in a series of sprints, the completion of each sprint offers an opportunity to evaluate project progress. Look at both the individual sprint as well as the project as a whole, and focus on success, failure, and areas of improvement. As you take time to evaluate, share your findings with both the development team (to help them improve the way they work) and the larger stakeholder group (to help influence the way projects are developed in the future).
Learn How to Manage a Software Project From Experience
Project management is a skill that students best study and apply through experiential learning, which is a cornerstone of the Master of Science in Project Management program at Northeastern University. Classroom work combined with professional experience helps students learn how to balance the theory and practice of project management, Roos says.
“You’re not learning from a textbook or business school study. It’s something you have to do,” he says. “You have to think about all of the steps in the process.”
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