The Process

An issue most software shops have to adjudicate at a certain size is how to build applications. Not how as in which languages, servers, or database systems (hopefully that's settled early on, revised periodically, and mostly stable)--how as in how, how early, are features defined and built, how often code is tagged and released, iterative v. waterfall, agile v. see-what-sticks free-for-all, etc.

Small startups comprised of one product co-founder and a technical co-founder usually don't need to worry about this. But as soon as you're big enough to have discrete design, product, customers and QA people involved, setting up the right processes becomes a necessity.

What I'm calling "process" here is the set of practices used to build a software project, not the dreaded product-design-executives-board-executives-design-engineering gauntlet your idea may have to go through before seeing the light of day. Rather, "process" here means the tools, approaches, meetings and other day-to-day activities you decide to use to build your project: daily stand-up meetings, waterfall specs, retrospectives, whiteboards, white/gray/black-box QA, pair programming, whatever. It's a stodgy name for a concept that needs not be stodgy.

Why Process?

One source of friction in software development is that software is malleable, and so tweaking features all the time is easy (and tempting). But one person's flexibility is another's sloppiness; one person's easy last-minute tweak is another's bang-your-head-on-the-table1 nightmare.

When building a bridge or skyscraper, with hard, heavy parts that need to be measured, ordered and fabricated months, if not years, ahead of time, the notion goes that you can't get away with sloppy/flexible/just-in-time/no planning and last-minute changes, and so building software shouldn't really be any different, because sloppy/flexible/just-in-time/no planning makes the product buggy/brittle/ugly/inconsistent. It's a common argument I've heard even from people who would rather mine coal in Mongolia than go (back) to the waterfall model.

But I think that's a bit of a false contrast. While I do expect structural engineers to know what they're doing and plan how they're going to do it if my life depends on it, I also expect them to be agile enough to respond to unexpected conditions, or to incorporate new ideas or technologies that come along when it makes sense (which does happen when you're working on a 15-year project). And I don't know any good software engineer who actually enjoys a 1-year planning cycle before they get to write any code or create table schemas.

The point is that you're usually building something for other people, and so what matters is your ability to deliver a quality product for those people. And change happens. Great new ideas come in at the last minute. Your CEO finds a blind alley in your UI flow nobody on your team had thought about. So complaining about, denying the existence of, or impeding those changes doesn't really gain anybody anything. But to the extent your own comfort or happiness or need for control are determining factors in whether you do deliver a quality product, you need some kind of process to enable you to build the best possible product in the best possible conditions.

Ask What Your Process Can Do For You

Process is meant to get things done well (your customers like your product), quickly (a leg up on the competition), and comfortably (high turnover is the enemy). It's not an mystical spirit or a magical toolbox to be worshiped or enshrined. And it's not the 100-year-old secret formula for Coca Cola or your grandfather's super gooey, always delicious sticky bun recipe, either.

Think of it as a suitcase containing the right outfits for a year in California. If you're spending April in San Francisco, you might want a lot of light layers, with a waterproof shell you can take off easily when it stops raining, and maybe a windbreaker. If you drive up to Tahoe in January, you might want snow mittens and a thick parka. And don't forget a swimsuit and towel for those summer days in Santa Monica. It's not the end of the world when the clothes get stained or wear out; you can take the suitcase with you to your next destination; and when you gain or lose weight, some of your clothes won't fit anymore.

Perhaps most importantly, if you find yourself wondering why people laugh at you and your dorky parka on the beach, or you're uncomfortable in your t-shirt and vest in the snow, the problem isn't with the clothes you're wearing--think about the ones you're not wearing.

Bad Process, No Cookie

It's easier to describe process when it's broken. How can you tell your process doesn't work? Defects creep in, stress rises, milestones are missed, good people quit. Sure, all of those symptoms could be due to individual issues like personal-life distractions, lack of skill or motivation, unexpected illnesses. But that's precisely what the right process is there to help you solve. By and large, your organization shouldn't fall apart when one person has a car accident and is laid up for a month, or limp along when someone isn't up to snuff on a particular set of tasks. So when you're having issues delivering products, see if the problem really is coming from night owl Jill Programmer or eccentric Mike Designer, or if your process is what needs a kick in the pants.

This is where being pragmatic, not dogmatic, in your process decisions can serve your needs better. Your processes are not your customers, your stockholders, your investors, your spouses--the process is beholden to you, not you to it. So if a process doesn't feel right, do spend some time tweaking it, but don't be afraid to shove it aside and try something else.

Now, changing direction too often with your process can send destructive signals: you don't know what you're doing; your team is dysfunctional and can't work effectively (and the team leaders don't know how to address that); the product is too undefined and can't be built. But remember the clothes aren't wearing you. Your allegiance is to your product and customers first, your people second, and the process dead last.

A Heuristic

Once you've used a process with great success, it's possible, even tempting, to settle on it and use it for everything, and that might be good enough. But not every problem is a nail to be addressed by your big hammer, so here's a possible heuristic to decide what approach might work best. Note this isn't a decision tree or a set of solutions; it's a set of simple questions the answers to which can be much more illuminating than you might think at first glance.

Who is going to use the product you're building?
If you're building a fun consumer product, with lots of new features and changes that make your consumers happy, you might want to try quick iterations with soft launches or restricted-availability features that get you feedback quickly so you can tweak and release something new the next week. SCRUM or other agile processes can be very helpful so you don't lose momentum; a drawn-out design and product feature planning process might not be best, because you can't tell on day 1 what people will tell you about your product on day 8, and the 10 features you design up-front might turn out to be unwanted.

On the other hand, if you're building a Web service API consumed by machines, rather than people, you might be better served to spend more time planning up front before you start coding: you might need solid capacity planning, performance testing, redundancy and failover, and because there can be hardware procurement and setup issues, it might be good to know more ahead of time, and then fan out and work on various pieces in parallel.

How much change can be expected in the feature set or interface?
Do you need a rock-solid API and protocols that will last for years and need to be backward-compatible for the next 5 version numbers? Which API calls should you support now to remain relevant in the future (maybe your service is brand new, but a treasure trove of data will emerge from a few months' worth of usage logs). You might want to do some heavy-duty feature analysis to make sure you're not including useless API calls nobody wants, or missing important calls people will need. This doesn't preclude short iterations and frequent milestones, and even fast feature changes, internal to your team: the shape of your end product doesn't have to match your product development practices.

How big is the team working on the project?
Can it be done in a month by a couple of developers and a part-time designer? Is it phase one of a company-defining, all-hands-on-deck product spread over a two-year plan? Constant verbal contact between the designer and developer working next to each other might be a great substitute for a thick PDF spec that fell out of sync two days before the PM last emailed it around; it could be a mess leaving giant holes in the product and SQL injection vulnerabilities all over the place. It greatly depends on...

Who is working on the project?
Software doesn't build itself. The team working on your project is the strongest predictor of success or failure, much more so than the technology they use. So be sure to gauge your engineers, designers, product managers and other actors, and keep your finger on the team's pulse: do they prefer a strongly-defined upfront spec? Do they resent being told what to do? Does Fred Programmer perform best with frequent status catchups, while Sung Designer thrives in a don't-call-me-I'll-call-you rhythm? Do Sung and Fred want to kill each other on a good day, and eat each other's babies on a bad day? More importantly, do you or the team lead actually know all this?

Note this is not a deep insight. In fact it's not an insight at all: different people have different needs, and the same process doesn't magically fit every team. Get a sense of what makes people thrive, or tick, and pick the practices that favor the former and minimize the latter.

Whatever Works

Ultimately your customer will determine whether your project is successful, mediocre, or a failure. Your process can only facilitate or hinder your progress towards one of those end points. It might be a beautiful work of by-the-book SCRUM, or a hotchpotch of Agile / XP on the tech side with an independent design and product team checking in occasionally, or a Soviet-era waterfall. The best process is the one that works for your project and your people, not the one that follows the bullet points in your expensive management consultancy's white paper.


1. True story.

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