If you’re like many companies out there, you’ve probably invested a hefty chunk of change in your development process. And if you haven’t already, chances are good that sooner or later your company is going to be asked the inevitable question about whether or not it should move to agile development.
In this post, we focus on what agile software development actually is and what it means for how we create products and provide services. We also talk about the benefits of this process as well as a few examples of how other companies have benefitted from transitioning their whole teams to this practice.
To start off, let’s make sure we are all on the same page when it comes to what agile means. So what do we mean by agile software development?
If you’re a software developer, that probably means you have an idea of what agile is. If you’re an entrepreneur or manager who is interested in learning about agile software development as a potential part of your business process, then this post is for you.
Agile software development is a methodology that focuses on bringing products to market quickly, with frequent releases of working software. It also emphasizes simplicity, flexibility, and feedback from your customers rather than on rigid plans. This long-established approach has produced a whole toolbox of techniques that will help team members learn from each other, their customers, and themselves.
To understand how agile is different from traditional approaches to software development, we need to discuss what aspects of the traditional approach are being challenged here.
Traditional approaches seek to plan out work and ensure things get done in a timely manner. They require management to define every requirement upfront and estimate the time it takes to get everything done. It’s important to know that with this approach, the team knows little about their product or their customers. This is because traditional approaches typically start off with a lengthy requirements process, followed by an equally lengthy design period. At this point, neither the customer nor any part of your team has a product that actually does anything yet!
This approach requires the project manager or other person in charge of implementation to define requirements and designs at considerable length before any actual work on the software begins. It also assumes that the majority of your project’s requirements and designs will remain unchanged. This requires a considerable amount of time to plan, with not a lot of time left to actually build.
In addition, this approach often fosters conflict between different members of the team who are responsible for different phases – designers, implementers, testers. It also makes it hard for the team as a whole to feel accountable because they were only responsible for part of the process.
With agile software development, you start out by getting your customers involved right away and releasing something that solves their problems. This gives you real-time feedback on what needs to be changed in order to deliver better products or services in the future.
The great thing about agile is that it’s a flexible process. Agile helps you balance the advantages of having a comprehensive plan with the benefits of being able to adapt to changing needs. Instead of planning everything upfront, there’s a time-boxed phase where requirements are gathered and prioritized, and these are fed into an agile backlog.
During the development phase, team members prioritize the items on this list based on what they have learned from their customers or from looking at other parts of the system. This backlog has items for all phases – requirements gathering, design, coding, testing – and uses them to guide the ongoing work as things change in each phase.
There are other benefits that come with this process as well:
- The ability to “learn fast” through frequent iterations. In traditional software development, it’s common for teams to work on something for a long time before they have any idea what’s going on – a classic example would be the design of any large new product or service. When you’re in the initial stages of development, you don’t know what features will be important to your customers; what they need to be able to do with the product; or how much it will cost in terms of time and money.
This long period of uncertainty is a big issue for companies that are working on projects that last over a year, especially for one-time efforts. You can spend a lot of money on something that doesn’t work and you don’t have any idea if it does until you’ve already spent months or even years getting there.
With agile, you work in short iterations of just a few weeks. This means that you have a chance to get some feedback from your customers early in the process, before you’ve spent too much time on something that doesn’t work. This gives product managers or other team leaders more transparency into how the project is going and helps them make better decisions about its direction – even in an environment where change is expected.
- Feature-driven development. If you’re using traditional software development, you may be used to making changes in large chunks. For example, you may spend months working on the design of a website and then use that design to develop modules for your module-based application.
With agile, you can’t work on features this way. Instead, team members will identify a feature or set of features they want to implement that will provoke the biggest impact for their customers.
For example, if you’re creating a new website, it might only take three weeks to get started – a far cry from the months or even years it would take with traditional software development. In a few short months, your website is up and running, and you can start getting feedback from your customers.
- Improved direction. With traditional software development, it’s difficult to get a good sense of how a project is going or whether it’s worth continuing at all. This is because the product managers are trying to formulate requirements and designs upfront without knowing what they want – and without having any idea what the final costs of those resources will be until well into the process.
With agile, there are many things that make it easier to know what to do next. Instead of focusing on lengthy documentation, team leaders can get their hands dirty and know exactly how things need to change in order to make the product or service better.
This means they’ll have a good idea of where they should be going and will be able to prioritize their efforts accordingly. For example, if they’ve been told that the customer needs something by the end of April, work on this can take precedence over something that won’t be ready until August.
- Improved quality. In the end, everyone wants a product or service that’s going to work well. It’s obvious that if your software is poorly designed or lacks extensive testing, you run the risk of putting out something that doesn’t meet expectations.
With agile software development, you don’t have to worry about this. Rather than trying to create everything up front, you start with a small feature set and add on from there. This means you can test it right away and make any changes before it becomes too big of a problem.
In general, agile software development will help you to put out better products and services than those coming out from traditional software development models. This is because agile focuses on being able to iterate, respond to feedback, and experiment as you build your product.
This is in direct contrast with traditional software development, which focuses on requirements gathering and documentation upfront. With agile, you can make changes to the system based on data and feedback from real customers – not on what might happen in the future or what may fit into a large, rigid project plan.
The Bottom Line: 4 Benefits of Agile Software Development
- Agile teams focus more on the end result than they do on any single small component.
- Agile teams get to the final result faster than traditional methods because they can iterate new features rather than try to build everything all at once.
- Agile teams have a better idea of where they should be going and what they should be working on because requirements and designs are updated based on feedback from real customers.
- Agile allows you to understand whether a product is worth continuing or if it’s time for a change in direction so that you can deliver higher quality results in less time.