Wrangling a team of software developers is a lot like herding cats — only worse, because in this case the cats all speak a mixture of different (programming) languages.
For most agencies, managing a software development team can be even more perplexing because you don’t speak any of those languages.
Thankfully, with the right processes in place, anyone can build the skills they need to successfully manage a software development team.
Here are nine tips to get you started.
1) Clearly define goals and expectations
Software development is fast-paced and fluid but at the same time can involve lengthy, complicated projects.
It’s easy for individual team members to get lost in the moment and lose sight of the small details or big picture — so setting clearly defined goals is a must.
This is one of the reasons agile project management and agile release planning are so popular among developers (86% of dev teams use it). The iterative approach keeps teams focused on incremental goals, defining both goals and expectations in (usually) two-week intervals.
The right project management software tools can make a big difference here, too: they bring order to chaotic projects and provide a central hub where team members can see who’s doing what, upcoming deadlines and milestones, and more.
2) Understand the expertise of your team members
Your team members may have overlapping skill sets, but they are not interchangeable. You may not be a coding pro, but you can still learn which team members excel at which types of development tasks (and coding languages).
As the project manager (whether those words are in your title or not), you’re going to make many of the decisions about who gets which tasks. The more frequently you assign tasks to the right devs, the smoother your project will run.
Getting this right has ripple effects throughout the project:
Tasks get completed more quickly and with higher accuracy.
Team morale improves as the team experiences more and more quick wins.
Overall work culture improves as experts collaborate rather than compete.
3) Select the right project management approach for your team
There is no single right way to do project management. There are numerous project management methodologies or styles out there, each with its own merits.
Two approaches tend to be the most popular in software development: waterfall and agile. And they could hardly be more different.
Waterfall vs. Agile
Waterfall is a highly linear approach to project management, where tasks cascade downward (like a waterfall) in a clearly defined order. It’s great when you know exactly where you need to end up and which steps and tasks will get you there.
However, it can be quite inflexible. For example, if you invest heavily in upfront planning, even small changes to the project could send you back to square one.
Agile is the other leading choice. It was born in the software development world, where it’s already popular and continuing to gain momentum. A recent study showed that agile development delivers an average operational performance boost of 30-50%.
In agile project management, the project is divided into shorter, more digestible segments, built somewhat independently of the rest of the project, and can be iterated (improved) over future segments. These segments are usually called sprints and typically last one to four weeks.
Agile is ideal when you don’t know exactly where you need to end up or when defining every single step ahead of time isn’t feasible. It lets you change direction, add or remove features, and adjust on the fly. Agile project management tools can help you plan and organize around this different way of approaching project work.
The downsides to agile teams usually appear during scope and schedule changes. Scope changes are easy to accommodate, but scope creep can quickly spiral out of control. And if you do have a hard deadline (or an inflexible budget), agile does little to ensure you’ll hit what you need to hit.
There are many other methodologies out there, including several closely related to agile (Scrum, Kanban, Scrumban, and so forth). If you want to go deeper, check out our take on seven popular methodologies.
4) Promote effective collaboration and communication with the right tools
Software development is often collaborative by nature. One person works on one feature while someone else works on something else, but in the end, the two functions must work seamlessly together.
To that end, clear and effective communication is vital. If there are gaps between the individuals or teams working on separate parts of the project, then gaps in the finished product are likely.
Quality of both collaboration and communication can rise or fall on the strength of the software tools you put in place.
How project management software boosts team productivity
The right software development project management tools enable clearer communication and more effective collaboration. They keep everyone on track with what they’re supposed to be working on, along with what their teammates are doing. They also show teams the big picture (whether that’s the entire project or a two-week sprint).
The ultimate result is a significant boost in productivity. With less time spent figuring out what’s next, who’s doing it, and how everything fits together, software development teams can move forward confidently and focus on the high-value work they contribute to your agency.
Teamwork is an all-in-one project management platform that enables teams to communicate and collaborate more effectively. Its easy-to-use tools centralize file management, so you’re never searching your network or cloud storage for that one random asset, and it keeps your team on the same page about workflows, what’s happening now, and what’s coming next. It also offers plenty of integrations with your team’s existing tools, so you can do all of your work in the same place.
5) Protect your team from busy work
Your agency didn’t hire a technical team of software developers to fill out forms, track time, or do other low-value tasks. So, whenever possible, don’t make them.
This is one of the reasons to have someone in a software development team manager or project manager role. Software development is neither simple nor cheap, so you want to keep those highly compensated specialists engaged with that highly specialized work as much as you can.
One way to protect your team from busy work is to consider taking on nontechnical and administrative tasks yourself. This lets your team focus on more important action items, allowing them to be more productive in their work.
Another way you can keep things as productive and smooth as possible is to examine your existing project management tools and systems. Do they allow you to automate and eliminate a lot of the busy work? If not, you may want to consider looking into additional tools or alternatives.
6) Emphasize autonomy and self-reliance
Your team members are talented professionals — and your agency’s most powerful asset. Part of successful project management is recognizing this and empowering your team members by emphasizing autonomy and self-reliance.
Of course, you still need to keep the team on track and pointed toward the right goals. But for the day-to-day details, avoid micromanaging and instead give your team the freedom to reach goals in their own way.
7) Recognize individual team members for their contributions
"Recognizing employees' hard work and dedication is the simplest and most effective way to increase engagement and drive results."
~Harvey Mackay, author and renowned expert in sales, leadership, and success
Because software engineers often work on separate pieces of a whole, they can sometimes feel anonymous or invisible — and this effect can be compounded with remote work.
Recognizing and praising individuals for their contributions to the project serves a dual purpose. The direct encouragement to the individual is easy to see, but the other purpose isn’t quite as obvious. When you, as a leader, praise individuals for their contributions or strong performance, you help craft an environment where praise and camaraderie become the norm.
This kind of positive work environment is highly valued and not always easy to create. It leads to stronger team bonds, better collaboration, and an environment where people feel more comfortable contributing their ideas.
8) Encourage two-way feedback
As people become more willing to open up, you can continue building a healthy team environment by encouraging two-way feedback.
The traditional boss-employee relationship is marked by one-way communication. The boss says, “do this” or “change that,” and the employee says, “yes boss, of course boss.”
It gets the job done, but doesn’t leave much room for the employee’s ideas. And that’s a problem when you’re leading a team of specialists who likely know more than you do about parts of the work.
Two-way feedback invites the employee to communicate openly back to the manager. It’s not a free-for-all; there’s still a hierarchy of authority here. But with this approach, your highly trained specialist can tell you that they see a better approach than the one you’re suggesting.
Implementing this approach can be simple. It starts with asking more open-ended questions at the end of the interaction. For example, you could try these:
What do you think of this approach?
Do you see anything I’ve missed?
Would you do something differently if our roles were reversed?
9) Measure performance and strive for continuous improvement
Last, make sure you have a way to measure your team’s performance. (Teamwork can help with this, by the way!)
You can’t improve what you can’t measure, so start by determining metrics: how long tasks are taking, how many work stoppages or bottlenecks, or whatever else makes sense in your situation. Then in your regular team meetings, you can show the team how well the project is going, adjusting goals as needed.
With the right performance metrics in place, you’re ready to strive for continuous improvement. If your team was five tasks short on the last sprint, maybe they can catch up by two this time around. If they were on time, maybe they could shave a day off the next sprint.
Cultivate a high-performance development team with Teamwork
The software development process can be complex, and managing software development teams can be a bit of a conundrum for nontechnical team leads.
By using these nine tips, you’ll be better equipped to connect with and manage your team. And by giving yourself and your team the right tools, you’ll be ready to supercharge your software team’s performance.
Teamwork is the ideal tool for agencies managing software projects, giving you the tools to track project progress in real time. Best of all, it’s intuitive enough for your entire project team to use and understand — engineers and creatives alike.
Ready to gain a deeper understanding of your projects so you can lead your technical teams with confidence? Sign up for Teamwork today!