The non-tech skills of software development project managers

Teams are key to the success of any enterprise software project, but development teams don't run themselves. Managers need the right skills to keep their employees on track.

Successful software development project managers are more than just senior coders and architecture experts. In addition to connecting the varied and disparate parts of a software ecosystem, these leaders must also ensure that development teams feel properly prepared, supported and motivated. Failing to give proper attention to this can lead to problems that, if left unchecked, can adversely impact or derail an entire initiative.

Let's take a closer look at the top skills of software development project managers, the importance of team structure, and the modern challenge of supporting remote staff.

Mastering leadership skills

Beyond being an experienced developer and tester, the successful manager will exhibit an array of soft skills that help guide a team through a project. Here are four roles all team leads should play.

Team builder. A software team leader must be an effective team builder. From the start of a project, a leader must understand the strengths or skill sets needed to accomplish goals, as well as the full capabilities of the team. Recognize the unique needs of each team member, and align your teams in a way that serves both the individuals and the group as a whole.

Motivator. A good manager understands what motivates people and encourages better work. The manager is a coach that should proactively offer constructive feedback, address mistakes without blame, and guide team members through issues. However, software team leads must also know when to let teams work on their own, giving them the confidence to solve problems on their own. Organizations can further promote autonomy through training and continuing education that helps build career opportunities.

Organizer. A successful software development project manager should be organized both in team structuring and performance analysis. Team leads should delegate roles and responsibilities to team members based on the skills and capabilities of those individuals. This will enable team members to bring their own strengths to the project for faster results and better-quality outcomes. When analyzing performance, team leads must keep careful track of metrics such as team velocity and throughput.

Communicator. Communication is vital to connect project stakeholders and developers to facilitate a successful project. A software project manager is an excellent communicator and collaborator, able to interact with all staff from junior developers to C-level executives in a clear, concise and productive manner. The team leader is also a cohesive problem solver that can recognize and address issues while minimizing their impact on the team, the project and the business.

Building the right development team

From the start of a project, a leader must understand the strengths or skill sets needed to accomplish goals, as well as the full capabilities of the team.

Team structures can have a profound impact on the outcome of a software project. Typically, the average software shop will include some staff members that are particularly adept at day-to-day management, and other members who act as specialists in unique areas of expertise. Project managers and team leaders must make conscientious decisions regarding where and how different types of staff spend their time.

Although there are many various team models, a software development project manager can generally choose from three basic categories:

  1. Generalist. A team of generalists is often best for low to moderate complexity projects where team members can handle a variety of different tasks and roles, particularly maintenance and upgrade tasks not related to specialized capabilities. Responsibilities that generalists usually handle include UI design, network communication, API management and data processing.
  2. Specialist. Specialist teams come into play during complex software projects with unique requirements, such as medical or military applications. For example, a development team working on medical record software must be well versed in HIPAA data protection regulations. Specialists come at a cost, but they can help projects move faster, and are frequently a requirement. However, project managers must make an effort to ensure that teams of specialists do not become silos of knowledge disconnected from day-to-day development processes.
  3. Hybrid. The hybrid model is effective for large projects that target industry-specific functionality, but will also require heavy back-end or infrastructure configuration. In this case, generalists will manage general-purpose functions and component integration tasks, leaving the other specialists on the team free to focus on their particular areas of expertise.

Adapting for remote workers

Many software developers have the capability to work from home or from other locations that are removed from the primary business location. Remote capabilities enable businesses to continue development in the wake of major events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Software development project managers must be adept at handling the additional challenges of remote workers, such as:

Transparency and accountability. It's impossible for a manager to watch over the activities of remote workers, so project planning often becomes a more granular issue to ensure that goals and deadlines are implemented effectively. Enforce frequent goals and deadlines to ensure that workers remain on-task while working remotely.

Communication and isolation. Remote workers often lose the sense of connection to their team members and the business, often leading to feelings of isolation and a decline in productivity. Project managers must make an extra effort to communicate and engage with team members and stakeholders. Consider employing virtual collaboration technologies, such as Zoom and Teams, to maintain communication and mitigate the sense of isolation that can impact remote workers.

Scheduling. Remote workers will inevitably deal with work-life balance issues. This is particularly true when the home space is also occupied with a spouse and children, like during the epidemic. Project managers must be sensitive to the work-life needs of remote workers and create realistic scheduling and task deadlines accordingly.

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