Best Practices for Software Development Projects

Most software projects fail. In fact, The Standish Group International Inc. reports that more than 80% are unsuccessful -- either because they are over budget, late, missing functions or a combination of all three.

Moreover, 30% of software projects are so poorly executed that they are canceled before completion. In my experience, software projects using modern technologies such as Java, Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE), XML and Web services are no exception to this rule.

However, there is help out there. To vastly improve the success of any software development project, it's helpful to follow these 10 simple guidelines:

  1. Recruit skilled and experienced people. Today's environment is more complex that ever. Tools help, but in the end, inexperienced people produce mediocre results at best and, in most cases, fail because they don't understand good project management and the best ways to apply new technologies. An excellent project manager and architect or technical lead will provide joint leadership of the project. They set the tone and have a vast impact on its ultimate success.
  2. Use "leading-edge," not "bleeding-edge," technology. Many Fortune 500 companies have successfully used mature technologies, such as J2EE, for software projects that have had huge effects on the way they do business. In some cases, it's necessary to apply a bleeding-edge technology that helps gain a distinct advantage over the competition. However, there are risks with such a strategy, and in this case, it's even more important to have excellent people on the project. Because there are few people with this kind of experience, it's important to get outside help.
  3. Use the appropriate development process. The nature of modern software projects demands a spiral-based development process. A spiral process has multiple phases that successively decrease the project risk. At the end of each phase is a go or no-go decision. In the early phases, prototyping is used to explore new technologies for the team or a user interface.
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    Mike Perks
    Mike Perks is a software architect for the IBM WebSphere team in Austin. Outside of delivering customer projects, his special interests include development methodologies, aspect-oriented software development, the Unified Modeling Language and model-driven architecture. His e-mail address is
  5. Provide the right tools. A software project needs the appropriate tools that provide productivity aids for the team. Tools include the right hardware as well as design, programming and test productivity aids. The cost justification of these tools is relatively easy. Training in the new tools or techniques is also essential to ensure that they are used to their full advantage.
  6. Use source-control management. Use a source-control management (SCM) system when the project begins. All documents, not just source code, should be under the version control of the SCM system. This allows the team to go back and view the history of the project and to retain copies of previous versions of all project-related documents such as use cases, architecture and design documents, and test scripts and plans.
  7. Apply sound estimating techniques. Most projects overshoot their estimated schedules by anywhere from 25% to 100%, but some projects have achieved schedule prediction accuracies within 10%. Without an accurate schedule estimate, there is no foundation for effective planning. When estimating a schedule, be careful not to include too much schedule compression. There is a point when the team can't achieve the tight schedule, and in the end, it will miss it by a margin.
  8. Break effort into mini-milestone tasks. Mini-milestones are smaller versions of milestones. Major milestones are the end of a phase or increment. Mini-milestones take less than one to two days' effort and are measured in hours. The advantages are improved status reporting, fine-grain control of knowing if a mini-milestone is missed, improved motivation (because every day or so a mini-milestone is achieved) and reduced schedule risk.
  9. Track all project hours. It's important to track the time spent by everyone on the project, not just the hourly paid consultants and contractors. The advantages are that the hours for an individual are compared with the planned hours. Steps are taken if that individual has been diverted onto other tasks. Also, the actual hours are compared with the estimated hours, which, in turn, provides feedback into the estimating techniques for the next project phase or the next project.
  10. Understand the only constant is change. These changes occur for many reasons, such as someone failed to ask the right questions at the right time, the problem being solved has changed, the users changed their minds or perceptions, the business environment has changed or the market has changed. "Feature creep" is the most common source of cost and schedule overruns. In the early stages of a project, there is a large amount of churn in the requirements. At some stage, the requirements need to be settled and essentially locked.
  11. Provide project leadership. It's important that company executives support a software project with a single executive responsible and accountable for the outcome. The key executive not only provides the vision, but also helps support the team by getting and controlling the resources needed for the project. It's also important that this executive doesn't meddle or micromanage the team. The executive trusts the team will deliver.

By following these 10 simple guidelines, you can have a better chance of completing your project within budget and within the scheduled time frame, maintaining a high-performance team and minimizing feature creep.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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