No matter the size of your software development team, there are bound to be many moving parts with any new software project. The margin for error with a software development project is minuscule — even the smallest mistakes can cost your business a lot of money. More than ever, implementing project management into your software development process is key to getting everybody on the same page while minimizing errors and keeping projects on schedule.

But it's important to understand that basic project management and software development project management are not the same. Software development projects have some unique nuances that make proper management practices absolutely critical. By having a better understanding of what software development project management is, how you can use it, and how it differs from other implementations of project management processes, you can set your software development team up for success.

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What is software development project management?

Software project management uses project management practices and systems to help accomplish software-related objectives. Product development teams use it to deliver projects of all shapes and sizes, including:

  • New product and software development

  • Patches and updates

  • Configuration management

  • Information system development

  • Test-driven development (TDD)

Just about any software development project is complicated enough to benefit from the use of project management. For example, software developers may use project management to brainstorm new software innovations. Businesses can also use software project management to create real-time product roadmaps, where they can define goals and timelines for a software product in one place. Likewise, a project management platform facilitates almost all software development project management. This is a shared digital workspace where the project is managed from start to finish.

The software development project management process

So, what does the actual process of software development project management look like? While this can vary from one project to the next, most will go through the following phases:

  • Initiation

  • Planning

  • Execution

  • Completion/Evaluation

Phase #1: Initiation

During initiation, the most basic project requirements are defined. This could be anything from creating new software to fixing existing software with faulty user experience (UX). The commissioning stakeholder and leaders of the project team should document the requirements they agree upon as a project charter. Once the charter has been approved and signed by all key project stakeholders, the project can begin.

The initiation phase is also an important one for project managers. During this time, project managers should expect to lead the rest of the software development team in creating a project charter and identifying key project stakeholders. During this time, conducting a feasibility study may also be necessary to evaluate whether the software development project is worth carrying out based on its criteria, available resources, and cash flow.

Phase #2: Planning

Next comes the Planning phase, where the team collaborates to formulate the project plan. One of the key outputs of project planning is a set of project deliverables. These are the specific items that the project will result in, which could range from new software products to security patches. It's common for a software project to have multiple deliverables.

Another important element of planning is defining the criteria that will be used to measure project success. Widely used success criteria for software projects include quality targets, whether the project was delivered on time, and whether the project stuck to the original budget. Anything that would ultimately make the project a success can be considered here.

Once you line up your deliverables and success criteria, you can move on to planning the activities that make up the project work. Elements of this process include:

  • Identifying, creating, and assigning tasks

  • Specifying project milestones, which represent key landmarks on the journey to project completion

  • Identifying dependencies between tasks, where completion of one task depends on another task being finished first

  • Grouping linked tasks into task lists

Another important aspect of the planning phase is the collaboration between software development teams and other teams or departments. For example, gathering insights and ideas from customers, marketing teams, and sales departments can provide useful information for planning the remainder of the project.

Phase #3: Execution

The Execution phase of a software project spans the active work of the software development process. This, as all developers know, represents a further series of processes that include design, development, testing, and quality assurance (QA) tasks. Your team should complete this work through your chosen development workflow.

The role of project management throughout this phase largely focuses on project monitoring. This includes tracking project progress against the time available and identifying blockers that could impede the team's progress. During this time, project managers should continue to maintain effective collaboration among software development team members and all stakeholders involved.

Phase #4: Evaluation

In the final phase of the project cycle, software teams should meet up (either face-to-face or digitally) to jointly evaluate the project.

Team members should ask themselves which parts of the project worked well versus what held it back. It's also a good idea to note any lessons learned that could be valuable to remember when planning for the next project. During this time, project managers should also expect to compare the project's final cost with the budgeted cost. This information can improve your team's productivity and efficiency in the long run.

In some project management methodologies, this evaluation process is facilitated through meetings called retrospectives. These reflective meetings provide an excellent opportunity for software teams to review their successes and potential areas for improvement throughout all stages of the project while offering a sense of closure as well.

What types of software development can benefit from project management?

Any type of software development project can benefit from having a management strategy in place. After all, software development is unique in its sheer complexity, high cost, and uncertainty. Developing software comes with some huge risks and challenges — and with so many moving parts, the potential for problems is significant. Having a project management plan in place can benefit many types of software development projects, including:

  • Front-end development: Working on the part of the software that the end-user sees. This can include building user interfaces, managing client-side behavior, and similar factors.

  • Back-end development: The part of the software that works "behind the scenes," such as dealing with servers and databases.

  • Full stack development: A combination of front- and back-end development, where a software team is working on both client- and server-side features.

  • App development: The creation of any computer program that carries out tasks to achieve specific objectives. Important aspects of application development can include designing prototypes, testing, and launching mobile- or web-based versions.

  • Data science: This refers not to specific software programs that reach end users, but the software or programming that is used within this software to make it more useful.

  • Mobile development: Any tasks related to creating mobile software apps, including native app development or Swift programming (depending on whether the app is designed for Android, iOS, or both).

  • Cloud computing development: The development of software resources that you can use on-demand without the need for complex physical systems or infrastructure (Google Drive is an excellent example of a cloud-based platform).

  • Security software development: The development of software that is designed to protect information. An important part of developing this type of software is testing for vulnerabilities and patching them.

  • Embedded systems development: Embedded systems exist in most of the devices used today, allowing them to extend their functionalities beyond the original hardware. Development of these systems includes creating and testing middleware.

As you can see, the scope of software development projects can range greatly from basic front-end development to security software development and everything in between. With so many variations and so much potentially at stake, having effective software project management in place is a must. Specifically, software project management keeps development on track while keeping team members informed and projects on budget.

Software development <3 agile project management

Software development projects are often managed according to agile project management principles. This makes a lot of sense, given that software developers invented agile.

Agile is a set of principles that form the basis of leading project management methodologies — such as scrum and kanban. It underpins the thinking behind most contemporary project management processes. Today, 36% of software development teams use this approach.

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According to Agile Alliance, we can break down the agile approach into the following principles:

  1. Satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

  2. Welcome change and harness it to the client's potential advantage.

  3. Deliver working software frequently and over short timescales.

  4. Facilitate people on the business and development sides of the team to work together closely, day-to-day.

  5. Support and trust team members to do their jobs.

  6. Relay information effectively through one-on-one conversations.

  7. Measure progress through software functionality.

  8. Ensure the rate of work, progress, and software use is sustainable.

  9. Focus on consistent attention to technical excellence and effective design.

  10. Prioritize simplicity to maximize the amount of work completed.

  11. Enable teams to self-organize.

  12. Give teams regular opportunities to self-reflect and adjust as needed.

Paying heed to these 12 principles is a wise move for software development teams, so we recommend building these into your project management process.

Software engineers gradually pieced together Agile project management in the latter decades of the 20th century. Today, all kinds of teams use it to deliver their projects, including government departments, creative agencies, web developers, and (of course) software engineers. Undoubtedly, software engineers will continue to use these project management principles to build useful things for the future.

Software project manager: Role and responsibilities

Most software development teams will benefit from working with a specialist software project manager. This person leads the team through the project management process, often drawing upon existing software development knowledge and project management experience.

Responsibilities commonly listed in software project manager job descriptions include:

  • Leading and assisting software projects

  • Delivering status reports to senior stakeholders

  • Leading on change control (this process ensures changes to a deliverable are within accepted parameters)

  • Handling project communication

  • Managing multiple projects at once

  • Creating and maintaining project documentation

  • Measuring project performance using appropriate tools and metrics

More than ever, relying on an experienced project manager is important to the overall success of your software development project. With the right project manager in place, you'll have a reliable point of contact for your entire software project (regardless of the specific type) and a professional to oversee your entire development team.

Can you manage a software project without a project manager?

Either by choice or through budgetary necessity, some software development teams use a project management approach without the involvement of a project manager. Ultimately, having a project manager in place is always your best bet — as a dedicated project manager will:

  • Improve collaboration and communication among team members.

  • Boost resource management.

  • Better manage your project budget.

  • Organize and centralize your data.

Using the right project management tools with your next software development project can help if your budget doesn't allow for a project manager. Just be sure to have these three things in place to maximize success:

  • Strong project management capabilities within your own development team. Consider having project manager responsibilities "rotate" through the team for each new project for the best results.

  • Clear allocation of project management duties to team members.

  • An intuitive project management platform with attentive customer support.

While a generic project management approach usually works for managing software development projects, we recommend incorporating the following specialized methods into your process.

Project estimation techniques

Estimating the amount of work that will be required for any new software project is extremely challenging, especially for non-technical stakeholders who may lack a developer's intuition for the complexity of software development tasks. However, some techniques can come in handy when it comes to project estimation, including:

  • Analogous estimation, where project scope elements are estimated based on comparison with similar elements of previous projects.

  • Parametric estimation, where measures such as the average cost of writing a certain number of lines of code are used to estimate project cost.

  • Program Evaluation Review Technique (PERT), where a graphical representation of a project's timeline is used to estimate the time and resources needed to complete a project.

Management of project scope

Software projects are vulnerable to scope creep, where a project's requirements greatly increase over the project's lifetime. Some creep is to be expected, but too much can prevent projects from being delivered on time and on budget.

The best way to keep scope creep in check? Taking a thorough and critical approach to software development project management. The more carefully your project is planned and managed, the more easily you'll be able to identify issues early in the development phase. From there, you can plan workarounds to keep your project on track.

Project risk management

In software development, a project risk is any event outside of a project that could affect the final outcome (whether for better or worse). This could be anything from an unexpected launch of a competing product to an unexpected change in user behavior. With the right project management strategies in place, your team can monitor project risk at all stages and take the measures needed to adapt and overcome.

Project management tools for software development teams

Software development teams tend to use a project management platform to help deliver their projects. This tool provides a digital project workspace where team members can collaborate in real-time while easily tracking the moving parts of a project.

With the right project management tool on your side, your software development project management processes will be equipped to run smoothly. The end result? Your teams can deliver great software that meets all your goals and objectives.

So, what are some of the best project management tools out there for software development teams today? Consider these top picks:

  1. Teamwork: An all-in-one project management solution that offers plenty of integrations with your team's existing tools, along with an easy-to-use interface and customizable resource management solutions.

  2. Jira: An agile management tool useful for tracking task completion, creating user stories, and tracking bugs during development.

  3. Trello: A task completion tracker useful for software development teams looking for more visual ways to track their projects from start to finish.

Manage your software development teams more effectively with Teamwork

Shy of hiring a dedicated project manager for your next software development project, using a software development project management platform is probably the best thing you can do to produce better-performing software that's on budget and on time. Teamwork's easy-to-use project management platform supports your software development teams at all stages of the process, so why not give it a try for yourself? Reach out to our team to learn more or to start your free trial!