23 min read
How To Build a Successful Software Development Team: Affecting Factors, Roles, and Best Practices
Building a software development team for your project is always challenging. And if we speak about building such a team from scratch, it is doubly difficult.
We’ve already reviewed the challenges of building such a successful development team for startups. It’s worth adding some numbers to make this review even more compelling:
- according to CB Insights research, not having the right team is the reason for 14% of overall startup fails;
- a 2022 State of Engineering Management report claims that the teams built of better-motivated and talented engineers, spending 50% or more time on growth and innovations, deliver at least 3x faster than those who are spending 25% or less;
- based on LinkedIn insights, a software engineer is the third most demanded role as of Q4 2022;
- another LinkedIn finding shows that professional services industry (where the software development services lay, too) has the highest average turnover rate equals 13.4%.
As you can see, the way you’ll choose for building your dedicated software development team is a crucial factor in how productive and successful this team will be.
The ideally formed software development team, compared with the not-so-ideal one, onboards much faster, works with higher performance, brings your project multifold better project’s success chances, and burns your resources (i.e. your money) more efficiently.
Today, let’s find out:
- what are the key factors affecting the structure of your future software development team;
- the list of roles typical for software development teams aimed at different goals;
- the best practices for building a high-performing team;
- some words about where to find proper people for your team.
Key Factors Affecting Team Structure
There are several key factors you should always take into account when forming your software development team.
Project Type and Its Complexity Level
It’s one thing to create an MVP of a simple mobile application containing just a few screens. But it’s another thing entirely to implement a complex turnkey software solution for an Enterprise-sized client. In other words, based on a further scope of work, the development team for its implementation may be rather different both in terms of its size and the roles that should be included.
– So, if you’re planning to create just a proof of concept or conduct a discovery stage, you need a project manager, business analyst, UI/UX designer, and software architect. Both product owner and product manager roles are important here but often presented on the client’s side.
– Forming a team for developing at least an MVP, you must add software developers and QA engineers.
– For a fully-functional product development team, the minimum crew composition is the same. However, it can also contain a product manager, CX designer, and technical writer.
– Based on certain circumstances, the team may contain some additional members like a team lead, Scrum master, DevOps engineer, or technical support specialist.
– The number of team members for each role highly depends on certain project requirements, especially its size.
There are plenty of existing software development methodologies out there. But the general difference lies between Waterfall and Agile methodology types.
- Within the Waterfall methodology type, all the stages of the software development life cycle come sequentially, one after another. As a result, each stage involves different roles: business analysts elicit requirements; then, once they’ve finished, designers create a visual look of the software; then developers start writing the code, etc.
The roles in the Waterfall software development teams are more distinct and rarely mixed. Such a methodology doesn’t require special roles like Product Owner that are familiar to Agile teams. There are also no limits on the maximum possible team size.
- A bunch of Agile methodologies is highly variable, offering higher adaptiveness and friendliness to any changes in the requirements at every development stage. The team size is usually limited with the “Two pizza” rule, meaning the amount of team members shouldn’t exceed the number of people enough to eat two pizzas (usually, from 4 to 10 persons).
Agile software development team structure, especially a Scrum team, requires some special roles like Product Owner or Scrum Master. We’ll review them a bit later.
Budget, Time, and Other Project Triangle Factors
The factors forming Project Triangle are also crucial when we speak about the structure of a required development team:
- the stricter your deadlines, the more people you need to finish the project on time;
- the higher budget you have, the more team members you can engage, what results in a shorter delivery time;
- quality level is a measure of a planned QA coverage: the higher this coverage, the higher quality and costs will be.
Team Members’ Expertise Level
It’s obvious that the developers with deeper expertise deliver faster and better. In theory, it allows you to substitute one senior-level engineer with several junior-level ones, or something similar.
In practice, however, this approach is highly risky and often causes serious issues. Quite often, some complex tasks are unbearable for less-skilled developers, which becomes clear when mobile or web development is on full steam ahead. Additionally, solving unexpected issues can easily ruin the development schedule.
The Approach You’ll Choose
Let’s take a look at existing approaches to the development team forming in terms of the allocation of responsibilities. For your convenience, all the data is combined in a comparison table.
|Generalist: a highly universal team||All the team members have broad skills and can handle some others’ duties||— Highly universal structure — Better results thanks to active communication — Faster delivery thanks to fewer blockers (not always)|
— You encourage your developers to become multiskilled
|— When a generalist meets a completely new task, it could take much longer to solve it than the specialist could do|
|Specialist: sharply focused||Each team member is focused on a narrow piece of knowledge (for example, on a specific programming framework); the team consists of smaller, activity-oriented workgroups (development, QA, BA, design, etc.)||— Faster development thanks to a parallel work — Deeper engagement within each task or activity type leads to better results — With clear responsibilities, higher competencies, and well-defined reporting, the team members are mostly self-supervised||— The process requires more coordination effort among the team members — You cannot easily switch one developer with another, or put the developer to any other area at least without onboarding|
|Hybrid: a flexible approach||This approach combines generalists and specialists within a single development team||— The highest flexibility — Offers all the pros from both previous approaches (you can vary your team structure, making it closer to the generalist or to the specialist, based on your needs)||— Coordination must be smart and requires more time due to its variability — Building software development teams using a hybrid approach means higher costs and requires more time on average|
Typical Roles in a Software Development Team
There can be more than two dozen different roles in the typical software development team. Below we’ve reviewed the most popular ones. Some of the duties are intersecting for different roles but this isn’t an issue. Most often, teams don’t contain every role listed below.
All the roles are divided into several groups:
- the first one contains the most common roles that can be found in almost each software development team;
- the second group contains the roles that are also popular but could be found not as often as the first group;
- the third group covers roles in a product development team;
- and the last group is aimed at possible maintenance team members.
The Most Common Roles
The back end is a server side of a network-oriented program, including all its logic and algorithms. The most popular back-end technologies are PHP, Java, Python, and Ruby, as well as varieties of frameworks based on them.
Growing vertically, the back-end developer can become a software architect. Once the back-end developer becomes solving any front-end tasks, they become a full-stack developer.
Front-End Developer, Mobile Developer, or Desktop Software Developer
A similar role in the mobile development process is called a mobile developer. They use special native mobile development tools like Swift for iOS and Java or Kotlin for Android. Although they can also develop cross-platform applications using special frameworks like React Native, Flutter, Xamarin, Ionic, etc.
Within desktop software development, the only role solving both front- and back-end tasks is called a desktop software developer. The desktop apps’ architecture uses the same programming language for both logic and layout development.
Quality Assurance Engineer
The QA engineer ensures all the implemented features comply with the requirements. A manual testing approach is the most common for testing. This means that QA engineers manually use the newly-implemented features both in ways it is described in the requirements specifications and in some undocumented ways.
QA automation makes it possible to simulate these manual actions just by running testing scripts pre-written in a special form. These scripts can then be reused at any time. Not every single feature of your software could be covered by autotests, by the way.
This project management role is the answer to the question of how to manage a software development team efficiently. Within the Waterfall methodology, project managers usually cover task distribution, planning, and reporting. For Agile teams, the role is accountable for product vision, arranging communications, maintaining transparency, as well as for improving the development process.
Sometimes developers devalue the role of a project manager, considering them just as laying between the dev team and the client. To be honest, their opinion usually changes quite fast once the team remains without PM and is forced to communicate with the client side on their own.
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A business analyst researches customer workflows and stakeholder feedback to transmit their product ideas into tangible requirements for bringing the maximum business value. The result of their work bridges the gap between the customer (business needs and requirements) and the development team (technical and non-technical requirements). Sometimes business analysts also cover some duties less specific to this role, like prototyping user interfaces.
In the Waterfall development process, their work activities are concentrated at the beginning of the development life cycle. In Agile development, the role is involved from the early development stages to final product delivery.
Product design involves two aspects: UX research, which covers a user’s interaction journey review, and UI design, which creates intuitive and good-looking interfaces. A UI/UX designer works throughout the development lifecycle to create functional and engaging user experiences, continually analyzing, evaluating, and enhancing them.
Once a certain activity-focused department grows to at least 2-3 staff members, it requires a leader for coordinating their efforts. With a skilled team lead, the team can hold much more tasks within the same period, making fewer errors. The team lead is also a source of motivation and technical knowledge for the managing team.
Scrum is the most popular Agile methodology used by 37% of respondents surveyed globally. And this role is common for Scrum-powered teams only. The main goal of the Scrum master is to help achieve the highest possible team performance and the fastest value delivery by following the Scrum methodology rules, processes, and rituals.
Scrum master is a team facilitating agent, bridging the needs of different stakeholders. The Scrum teams are aimed at self-organization and are badly being managed top-down. That’s why the Scrum master isn’t a manager but a supporter who acts as an equal collaborator, not a supervisor.
An engineering manager is responsible for overseeing the software engineering teams’ daily operations and ensuring the successful delivery of projects. They are accountable for leading the team, organizing and prioritizing projects, and providing guidance and mentorship to other team members.
Contrary to the team leader who manages people, the engineering manager is accountable for managing teams’ performance and outcomes. Additionally, they are responsible for developing and implementing engineering strategies, ensuring the timely delivery of products, and managing relationships with other departments.
Common in Product Companies
The product owner is a Scrum role responsible for managing the product development lifecycle, from ideation to delivery. They work with stakeholders to define the product vision and further control that the development team is aligned with the project needs and goals set by a product manager. Product owners are also responsible for managing the product backlog, and prioritizing features.
The overall success of a product, from ideation to delivery, depends on the product manager’s role at the biggest pace. This role focuses on potential or existing customers rather than on the technical aspects of the product. Conducting industry, market, and competitor research, they segment users, detect their needs and desires, and define KPIs and metrics.
The next big part is to conduct a full Customer Development (CD) process. The first CD step is Customer Discovery (strategy planning and creating a roadmap, hypotheses validation, and remaining hypotheses testing).
The next stage is to validate customer hypotheses (analyzing the behavior of the first customers, interviewing, and surveying them). Then, once the product is launched at least in a form of MVP, the product manager is involved in gathering the first customer/user base. The last Customer Development stage is continuously analyzing the feedback and updating the product accordingly.
The customer experience designer is responsible for ensuring that all the customers (i.e. end users, prospects, and partners) have a positive experience with a product or service. In other words, this role combines User Experience and Customer Success concepts into a single one. CX designers focus not only on a user journey but on all existing touchpoints. They use research, feedback, and data analysis to improve the customer experience and ensure customer satisfaction.
A technical writer is responsible for creating and maintaining documentation for software products, including user manuals, FAQs, installation guides, and other background documentation.
Working with the development teams to understand the technical aspects of the product, they translate these aspects into easily understandable documentation for end-users. Technical writers ensure that the documentation is up-to-date, accurate, and accessible to users.
Common for Software Development Maintenance Team
A maintenance engineer is responsible for ensuring the smooth operation of software products after their release. They work on maintaining the product’s functionality, fixing bugs, and ensuring that the product meets the changing needs of the market and end-users.
Maintenance engineers pay special attention to any updates or changes delivered by the development team in order to ensure they are seamless and don’t impact negatively the user experience.
Technical Support Specialist
This role is aimed at providing technical assistance to end users. Once the users report any technical issues, the technical support specialist communicates it to the developers in order to find a solution. Technical support specialists are responsible for ensuring that end-users have a positive experience with the product and providing timely and accurate support.
The main goal of a DevOps engineer is to set an automated continuous delivery process up and running yet keep the software stable. The newer and wider concept DevSecOps also includes the goal of keeping the system secure, as well.
Best Practices for Building High Performing Software Development Teams
- Clearly define all the roles and responsibilities. The members of your team must be fully aware of their zones of responsibility. This helps avoid confusion and to ensure that everyone understands what is expected of them.
- Build strong leadership. Strong leadership is also critical for successful team management. A good leader can motivate the team, set clear objectives, and provide guidance and support.
- Engage people with diverse skill sets. Such a practice is an efficient way to ensure that the team has a broad range of capabilities and that you have a plan B for any accident with your staff. Even if someone from your team will become ill right before the due date, this practice will help you meet the deadline.
- Communicate regularly. Regular team communication is key to keeping its members aligned and informed of project status. Moreover, frequent speaking with your team raise your chances to detect that something goes wrong within your team before it could harm your business.
- Set efficient teamwork and collaboration. An efficient team with advanced teamwork and collaboration practices employed helps your worst-performing developers strive for the best-performing ones. This results in a boost of productivity, as well as helps analyze any existing teamwork issues earlier.
- Ensure your team members are fully aware of project goals and objectives. Always communicate project goals and objectives clearly and consistently with your team. Keeping the misplaced secrecy across your team is often harmful to overall performance. People who aren’t aware of the project details will highly likely lose their motivation significantly.
- Use metrics to track performance. Among the possible metrics, you can use productivity metrics (code churn, number of tasks implemented, scope commitment, etc.); team velocity (total amount of work in story points implemented by the team during a certain period); code burndown (in a form of code burndown charts); escaped defects (an amount of bugs detected after the delivery); test coverage (take into account not unit tests only but also manual, UI, automation, integration tests, etc.).
- Help your team members receive continuous education. Continuous education and skill-building are also essential for software development teams, as technology and best practices are constantly evolving. Encourage your team members to learn new regularly, the best option is to obtain a budget for this purpose.
- Control work-life balance. Finally, it’s important to control work-life balance to avoid burnout. Don’t let your team members work late without a special need.
Overcoming Harsh Hiring Challenges: Is the Game Worth the Candles?
“Let’s say you need a software development team of four engineers.
First, time to hire. it takes 49 days on average to hire an engineer, LinkedIn claims. And in reality, to hire 4 engineers, you need to go through 1000+ CVs and 50+ interviews, which alone can take several months.
Second, hiring costs. According to CodeSubmit, the average cost of hiring a full-time software engineer in the USA is $32,601, including recruiting, benefits, insurance, retirement, paid leave, and supplemental pay. So, hiring four engineers can cost you $130k.
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Hiring just a single expert-level software developer is a serious challenge. But if you need to hire software development team all at once, it is a recruiting nightmare. The question lies not only in the plane of building an effective software development team but also in severe staff shortages in the USA.
Apart from this question, building a winning software engineering team depends on multiple factors:
- project type and its complexity;
- development methodology employed — Waterfall or Agile;
- approach to team building you’ll choose — generalist, specialist, or mixed;
- budget and terms;
- level of developers’ desired experience.
As you can see, barely each stage of the hiring process, as well as forming or onboarding the team to your software development projects is a challenge. However, a well-formed team can perform several times better than the average one.
But, once you’ve already hired the required engineers anyhow, use the guide above for all the other stages. And you’ll likely succeed.
Remote tech teams & the future of work blog
Remote tech teams & the future of work blog
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