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How to Define a Software Development Process

Your software development process should be contextual, likable, forceful, and readable, and you should get it this way by iterating over it.

Defining a development process is hard

So, you want to define a software development process for your organization. Good luck. If it isn’t hard work, then you’re probably not doing it right, because you ought to take many factors into account, and those factors tend to be very organization-specific. Although you can gather lots of great ideas from books and process gurus, your ideal process will be so influenced by environmental factors that no text or outsider can tell you what it should be. At the end of the day, all of the tough calls will be on you. Also, since the development process will affect every project and stakeholder in your organization, it’s a high-stakes proposition, and something you probably can’t afford to screw up.

What should the process cover?

Actually, figuring out what kinds of things the process should govern / specify is an essential part of the process definition. (No free lunch here.) It’s not just a matter of figuring out how to answer a series of questions in an organization-specific way, which would be hard enough. You also have to figure out which questions are worth answering in the context of your organization and its goals. A larger development shop may dicker productively over the standard set of documents that will be dissected in design reviews. A one-horse development shop probably doesn’t have the same concern, as there’s nobody to do such reviews.

So, what kinds of things might a development process address? The following rough categories would make for at least a decent start:

  • Activities that will happen: The “coding” part is more or less a given, but are you going to do ROI analyses, design reviews, independent testing, user acceptance testing, management approvals, formal training, etc?
  • Order in which activities will happen: Are you going to be more waterfall-ish, with code mostly following an requirements gathering and design, or are you going to be more agile-ish, and allow your code to grow up alongside your requirements and design?
  • Conditions on activities: ¬†What circumstances require or preclude particular activities? What approvals or phase gates govern movement from one activity to another?
  • Deliverables produced: What kinds of products do you need to create in addition to the software? Design documents? Manuals?
  • Enforcement mechanisms: How will you ensure that the requirements of the process are being respected? Will you do process reviews? Audits?

Characteristics of a good process

Consonant with the above, it’s hard to offer much advice on what your process should look like, because your process needs to be tailored to its context. However, here are some meta-level suggestions about software process definition in general:

1) Software practitioners (engineers, project managers, etc) should like the process. They don’t need to take it with them to Disney World, but they shouldn’t be bristling and gritting their teeth as they struggle under its yoke. If practitioners don’t like the process, it won’t be used as intended, and will hence be a failure. Even if a disliked process is mandatory, people will figure out ways to achieve superficial compliance, even though they are really doing things some other way. Accordingly, the process should be designed mostly by the practitioners themselves. This will presumably lead to a process that the practitioners think is valuable, and will greatly increase the likelihood of broad buy-in. Management can and should levy requirements on the process, but the practitioners should be allowed to satisfy those requirements how they see fit.

2) The process must be forceful, which is to say that it must contain mostly shalls – things people have to do (if they want to avoid a beatin’), as opposed to shoulds – things that are¬†recommended. When a group is trying to define a process, members will often weigh in with suggestions, guidelines, and best practices that represent their views on how software engineering should be done. This may seem useful at first, but any group of experienced professionals can say a great deal about how things should be done. Before long, you’ll find yourself writing a software engineering book, filled with a big pile of shoulds that individuals will happily ignore whenever timelines get tight or when they happen to disagree with the recommendation. The payoff of this book will be too small to justify the time it takes to write it. Instead, your process should focus on what is mandatory / required, even if it is only required in certain circumstances. There is value in a big pile of shoulds, but it belongs in knowledge sharing activities (lunch and learn stuff) as opposed to a process definition.

3) The process must be extremely concise (as minimal as possible) and readable. A process that expounds on its topics in an academic and/or lengthy manner will go unread, and a process that goes unread is a process soon to be dead.

4) The process should be developed iteratively, because iteration works for everything. Don’t wait until you have the whole thing nailed down before you deliver something. Rather, start piloting elements of the nascent process as soon as possible, so that you can gain some real-world experience and adjust accordingly. Particularly if your process levies new requirements on people, you’ll want to see where people are tempted to cut corners, and if they still agree in the heat of battle to the same things they agreed to on the whiteboard.

If the process you develop is sensitive to its context, respected by the people who will use it, slanted toward mandatory practices, and right to the point, it will likely be a success. Further, you are more likely to define such a process by iterating over it early and often.