How to get what you want from software developers

By Thom Holmes, ITworld.com |  Business

The development of a software program begins by asking many questions. Applications as
dissimilar as games, in-house accounting systems, and e-commerce sites all have at
least one thing in common: a need to satisfy user needs and expectations. The time
during which the basic feature requirements of the software are defined is often called
the Discovery Period.

The major deliverable at the end of the Discovery Period is the Functional
Specification.
It is the blueprint of the project and defines the project's scope.
Whether you are working with a third-party developer or an in-house development staff,
one thing is certain: if you don't carefully manage and referee the Discovery Period,
the Functional Specification will be off-target, dooming the project to be late and
over-budget.

It is the role of the project manager to pull the Discovery Period together. Although
the project manager isn't expected to know all of the answers, he or she is expected to
ask the correct questions or to put other people into the mix who can.

The major anxiety that plagues management during the Discovery Period is the sense that
nothing is going on. The Discovery Period is quite elusive and difficult to get a
handle on because it consists mainly of fact-finding. It seems like all talk and no
action. A developer who wishes to go off and work on his or her own may not regularly
report back on the thinking that takes place between discussions. No designs are likely
to be attempted and no programming undertaken until the Functional Specifications have
been approved. After several weeks of this, there is the nagging impression that the
Discovery Period is too long and that a project is already doomed to be delayed and
costly.

If you are serving as project manager you can combat these dangerous impressions by
instituting a few simple practices.

  • Hold regularly scheduled standing meetings to discuss all major features and
    functions of the proposed software. The purpose of these meetings is for the client to
    explain the requirements the software must meet and to make decisions limiting the
    features to a reasonable set that can be completed within the allotted time frame.
    Require certain members of the developer and client teams to participate. Make sure
    there are decision-makers in these meetings so that something can get done. For a
    six-month project, these meetings will typically take place two or three times a week
    during a four- to six-week Discovery Period.

  • Create an agenda for the standing meetings so that participants know which
    topics will be covered.

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