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How to start managing software development teams like a pro

Team performance is vital to a software project's success. Avoid these common management challenges and learn about the key metrics that help monitor your team's effectiveness.

What may seem like small or simplistic issues within a software team, such as communication and scheduling, can have costly consequences on a project if they are not managed carefully. In fact, if left unchecked, these issues can completely derail a development project or initiative due to delays and overworked developers.

When managing software development teams, leaders need to understand and adhere to the fundamental practices that facilitate successful operations. It also means that they must become intimately familiar with team performance metrics, such as velocity and throughput, which they can use to quickly identify trouble spots within a team and address them appropriately.

In this piece, we'll examine the top five challenges associated with managing software development teams, as well as the tactics effective leaders use to address them. Then, we will review the time-tested metrics that help assess team performance and accurately target the root cause of issues.

5 effective team management tactics

Although the general challenges of supervising teams are not specific to software design and development, poor management of everyday routines can severely hurt any initiative. Project leads that dedicate attention to certain fundamental practices can bolster a team's chance of continued success.

Here are five habits that those tasked with managing software development teams should try to adopt:

1. Facilitate effective communication. Poor communication can compromise a project on many levels and can easily derail an entire initiative if left unchecked. For instance, a project manager may forget to regularly check in with remote developers, leaving them feeling disengaged and vulnerable to mistakes. Or, they may fail to adequately connect with the business units that depend on the software, leaving vital stakeholders out of the loop and increasing the chance that the project won't meet their needs.

As such, communication and collaboration are hallmarks of an effective project and team manager. Make a strong and consistent effort to keep software teams connected, avoid neglecting any personnel, and maintain a steady dialogue with all units in the business.

2. Keep project schedules consistent. Scheduling is easy when things are predictable. Unfortunately, software projects are typically dynamic affairs, where resources and requirements fluctuate frequently. When tasks take longer than expected, or the organization passes down new sets of requirements, project schedules can quickly go into disarray.

Every project will require a determined duration and completion timeframe, but it needs to be mapped out intelligently. Make sure steps are scheduled in a way that allows for unexpected delays or changes in plans, rather than setting ambitious dates that are hard to meet. Also, avoid aggressive scheduling that requires individual developers to handle multiple projects simultaneously, which can lead to inefficiency, poor quality and burnout.

3. Evaluate priorities carefully. Each task a project leader passes down to developers takes limited resources -- especially the development team's time and energy -- to reach a project's goal. Successful prioritization depends on the manager's understanding of both stakeholder and business needs.

Poorly understood or frequently changing priorities can lead to poor scheduling decisions, dissatisfied stakeholders and frustrated customers. The manager must have a clear picture of priorities and establish priorities early on with business leaders, stakeholders and development team members.

4. Avoid overly rigid processes. Successful software projects depend on an orderly execution of activities, especially to deal with complex scenarios. For example, a project manager might need to create and implement a standardized process to deal with large numbers of change requests from users. But mandating tyrannical or unclearly justified processes imposes huge limitations, especially as software teams face more demands for agility, flexibility and responsiveness.

Project coordinators must resist the temptation to simply create new processes every time a process emerges. Instead, they should first clearly determine what the root cause of the issue is, especially since adding a new process may only exacerbate problems. For instance, new processes will not help a faltering development team hit goals if the requirements of the project were not made sufficiently clear to them in the first place.

5. Watch for silos of knowledge. Bringing certain specialists to a team is helpful when a project demands niche and complex capabilities. However, while they may not realize it, too many managers maintain an unhealthy reliance on these specialists and their expertise. It's difficult for team leads to accurately assess the progress of a project if they are not in tune with the work being done. On top of that, it will severely hobble the team if that specialist is moved to another project -- or leaves the company altogether.

Software development project managers should limit their reliance on specialists and prepare to fill the gap should that specialist depart. When possible, eliminate information silos through cross-training and knowledge-sharing initiatives that will help developers learn from these specialists and sharpen their skills in that area. If you find yourself relying on large numbers of specialists or silos, it would be wise to critically examine whether the project is overly ambitious or complex.

Practical team success metrics

Effectively managing software development teams requires close attention to any information that can gauge a project's status and measure success. But all too often, the most important metrics are poorly utilized or ignored. It's critical that team leads track trends and aggregate data that is useful to the project and can guide critical decisions.

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There is a massive number of software development metrics and KPIs that project managers can choose to follow, and it can be difficult to determine which ones will provide an accurate picture of a project's progress. However, there are six particular metrics that effective software team leaders tend to monitor.

Bug rate. A bug rate calculates the number of software defects that sprout from new implementations of features or functions. Software managers can use this metric to determine whether the team is producing quality code, or whether their work is producing a harmful number of errors.

By catching high bug rates early, software project managers can take proactive steps to help developers improve code quality and lower bug rates. It's also possible to pair bug rates with other, related metrics to help determine the problem. For instance, you may find that a single team is forced to handle an unmanageable volume of ticket submissions, causing them to rush work and create error-ridden code.

Team velocity. Velocity assesses the average amount of work a software team completes per project, or development team sprints, in cases of Agile development. This metric is often calculated against particular user stories or requests, and tracks how much value a single team provides during a given set of time.

Managers can use this metric to help estimate costs, schedule projects appropriately and create an accurate software delivery strategy. If velocity seems low or unstable, it may indicate that there are problems lurking below the surface, such as an unexpected process change or poor communication of user requirements.

Throughput. This is another measure of team productivity or output that is typically expressed as units of work, such as ticket response rates, completed over a period of time. This will provide a picture of how much work a single team actually faces on average, and managers can tailor throughput for specific tasks or business goals to narrow the scope of examination.

For example, if a project manager wishes to optimize performance during a given sprint, throughput metrics will track the number of performance-related tickets or tasks a team completes within that sprint's timeframe. Similar to team velocity, low or unsteady throughput may indicate issues such as unmanageable workloads or inefficient development processes.

Cycle time. Team leaders can use cycle time metrics to determine the amount of time it takes a team to address an individual task or ticket. This provides a granular measure of throughput, and enables managers to examine the time it takes to complete various types of tasks.

By understanding how long certain tasks take, managers can greatly improve planning and scheduling for particular project efforts. For example, if a manager can determine how long it takes to resolve a certain type of bug, they can provide users and other software stakeholders with an accurate and reliable prediction of when their issue will be resolved.

Lead time. This tracks the time that elapses between the planning and implementation of new software features and functions. Similar to cycle times, lead time helps managers pinpoint how long it takes to implement certain types of capabilities, increasing the accuracy of planning and scheduling.

When lead time changes or declines significantly, it indicts that a team profoundly struggles -- and perhaps loses precious time -- when working on a certain feature. Perhaps the new feature is more complicated than it needs to be. Or, maybe the effort required to implement that feature outweighs its benefits

Rework rate. This represents the amount of work that must be reworked or corrected after it is tested or launched. When developers frequently create large volumes of code that require rework later, it may indicate that the developers do not clearly understand the requirements, struggle to follow a particular process or need a refreshed outline of standards and project goals. Regardless of the specifics, high rework rates typically indicate a problem with communication and processes.

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