While there are some general managerial challenges, independent of the industry where the process happens (achieving set goals, solving crises, responding to critical issues, timely delivery, etc.), others are typical for specific fields.
Hiring a small but thriving share from 27 million software developers worldwide using approximately 700 programming languages, we know the struggles faced by companies delivering software as a service.
Is managing software developers different from leading other teams?
Surely, at least a bit. Otherwise, we wouldn’t take up the issue.
What are the greatest challenges in managing software developers?
Managing dispersed teams
Most work done in the software development field is nowadays carried out remotely, but even in those distant pre-pandemic times, many IT companies worked remote-first. Apart from just not meeting daily in the office, developers can work within core hours depending on internal rules, or just communicate with the rest of the team to report progress if e.g. residing in a different timezone.
Overseeing work done by remote developers may present difficulties, especially to managers used to on-site work. As a remedy to emerging issues, companies implement dedicated tools supporting project managers (PMs), facilitating regular meetings, and focusing on delivered results instead of activities performed. Choosing the right solutions and working out dedicated processes enables maintaining the same (or even better!) efficiency of remote work as in the office.
Assembling the perfect team
Choosing the right team members to work on certain projects requires keeping in mind their potential. If the person is highly skilled, easy tasks may bore them soon. If the task completion relies on specialized knowledge, less experienced team members may not be capable of fulfilling set goals. In the perfect situation, project managers have a say during recruitment, helping pick the right candidates for upcoming projects. Or, when no positions are vacant, choose the best developers internally, depending on the scope of work to be done, budget, and project timelines. Different specialists can be chosen for complex, long-term works, while teams for shorter and less complicated projects will have a different composition, even within the same technologies used.
Building a great team is not just about collecting all the necessary skills under one roof. Unsurprisingly, it’s a sum of various qualities, where characters, efficiency, and the ability to cooperate create optimal synergy. In the industry where the employee market dictates financial opportunities, it’s mostly satisfaction and sanity of work that can win the employee willing to stay with the company.
The IT industry is a huge magnet, attracting people from various backgrounds to try their hand in software development. There is no age nor educational census, as the industry is capacious and egalitarian. While groups of people always differ to an extent, the specific nature causes a very diverse environment consisting of individuals with academic backgrounds, those who completed programming courses, and those who are self-taught.
Generational differences have always been noticeable among programmers, but nowadays they have a particular impact on cooperation in the workplace. Today, 4 distinct generations (Baby Boomers, Millennials, Generation Y, Generation Z) meet and need a consensus for efficient work. What does it mean for managers? Leaders need to acknowledge the differences in values, motivating factors, and other distinguishing features of each generation to make diverse teams succeed.
The divergence in core values may cause chaos in projects where work needs to be distributed equally. The ability to identify trouble spots and adjust the approach accordingly helps managers in running teams consisting of representatives of different generations, catering to their needs.
Less experienced developers strive to learn on the job to boost their professional growth. In wisely managed teams the younger (in terms of seniority) team members benefit from the knowledge of their more experienced colleagues, without interfering with the projects’ continuity. Executing projects solely with juniors is a short-sighted strategy, as in the IT industry employee development is crucial for long-term goals.
Knowledge distribution is important not only within one project but the company as a whole. Expertise needs to be shared for other developers to benefit from it without restrictions. Costs of exchanging programmers in case they lack necessary skills are felt by companies, and managers need to assure the use of the right tools enabling knowledge sharing and retention. Using learning management systems and other tools aggregating knowledge internally helps to maintain efficient skills level and easy access to information.
Estimations and planning
We have a comprehensive article about challenges in estimating projects, but in this topic, we need to stress out one key aspect. Managing a team requires understanding the potential of particular developers and the ensemble as a whole, allowing insights into what they are really capable of.
Some character types may be prone to showing their skills off, trying to bite more they can chew, proving they can achieve major results with the minimum time needed. At the same time, other developers may act too conservatively, insisting on higher estimates to leave an unreasonably big buffer margin, when their skills are just right to complete tasks in standard timeframes.
Planning tasks requires a deep understanding of how to develop the teams’ potential while aiming at clients’ goals. Best practices call for setting smaller tasks firmly rooted within a context, giving developers a sense of purpose in their actions. In well-managed projects execution of individual tasks visibly contributes to teams’ objectives, showing a greater sense of work and preventing burnout.
Communication is a necessity in cooperation. Conveying complex ideas and concepts, also to non-technical people e.g. on the client side, requires formulating clear and concise messages. Recently, software development companies put more emphasis on soft skills, making communication a more important part of job interviews for programmers. Still, for project managers, often less technical than their team members, exchanging information with developers may be challenging.
Popular jokes emphasize that holding meetings that could have been emails uses too much time. Whenever possible, real-time communication via e.g. Slack is time-efficient and suffices the needs, helping to avoid unnecessary meetings. Short and substantial messages that are easy to access over time improve mutual understanding.
Some say it’s the journey, not the destination, but in project management goals are vital. The objectives need to be embedded in the project long-term plan and bring the client and their product closer to market success.
Goals are necessary to measure progress and achieve success. However, objectives set for software development teams need to be challenging enough, yet realistic to avoid discouragement in case of a repeatable fiasco in delivering results, Otherwise, team members may become demotivated and lose interest in working on the project. As a way of dealing with challenges in defining goals, project managers may lean towards smaller releases to ensure the stability, testability, and market validity of the solution. The project manager needs to recognize the actual level of task complexity and difficulty to set goals requiring the right amount of engagement and focus, resulting in teams’ success.
Keeping the team on the same page
Keeping the team on the same page provides a sense of community, not to be overrated while cooperating on joint projects. Probably everyone working on group projects heard at least once in their life catchphrases like “teamwork makes the dream work“, etc., but slogans aside, partnership and collaboration are necessary to achieve goals.
To keep the software development team on the same page, project managers should facilitate a shared understanding of what is the project goal, eliminating possible misconceptions about how the product or service is supposed to work.
In contrast to the previously common model of management based on command and control, PMs can align their teams by listening to developers’ input and leaving space for team members to make technical decisions, contributing to the direction the project is heading in.
Most people fret at their managers looking over their shoulders, and the more autonomous the employee, the aversion towards this approach is stronger. To avoid micromanaging, project managers delegate tasks, entrust developers with their execution, encourage team members to make decisions, and invite them to show initiative within the teams’ actions aimed at improving the final results. Even though the urge to check minor details instead of overlooking the bigger picture may be hard to resist, most software developers perform better when trusted by their PMs and given space to focus on delivering the expected results.
Project managers need to oversee not only task delivery but also cooperation within the team, without inferring unless it’s necessary. PMs conduct regular 1:1 meetings to stay up-to-date with developers’ progress, encountered obstacles, and areas for improvement. Holding meetings and paying close attention to the team allows managers to respond to problems before issues could interfere with employees’ wellbeing and affect the results.
Overcoming challenges in managing software developers
So, is managing software developers really different from leading teams in other fields?
Leading software development teams requires certain skills from managers, as the industry itself is quite a unique market (dynamically growing, shaping the technologies of tomorrow, and associated with huge budgets), placing its stamp on people involved in it. Paradoxically, being a strictly technical person is not the most important factor.
Project managers are responsible for many tasks, and the ability to listen, formulate clear and concise messages, negotiate and plan are vital to beneficial cooperation with both clients and developers. Project managers need to be technical enough. The rest is up to soft skills and managerial abilities. Understanding tech issues is necessary to a point where the PM knows which areas to leave to developers without interfering with their execution.
Good (and we mean really good, not just job-advert-stock-picture-good) atmosphere, cooperation, and actual space for learning and personal development are what reinforces developer teams better than any additional benefit offered by the company. It’s the project managers’ role to facilitate the process and enable the optimal conditions for software developers’ work.
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