TL;DR Software engineering projects. Quick guide, explained simply.

TL;DR

What are typical steps to get projects done?

  1. Refine.
    Design & Product (with little help from Engineering) refine what you need and how it will look. Explore different options, ideas and agree on all the functionality that hopefully doesn’t go beyond engineering limitations. Most of the focus goes on WHAT. This is the time when your project will gain shape and can be split into different teams. Ensure representatives from each discipline have input on the direction as it will save you from many surprises later.
  2. Get it done.
    Review all requirements, plan the work, split between teams. Any mistakes or sloppiness in the previous steps will affect timelines, especially if the teams have to chase for more information or deal with too much ambiguity. Teams decided HOW, and knowing the platform’s limitation, will want to adjust the WHATs to meet the deadlines.
  3. Test & Deploy.
    Everything should be tested to make sure all three previous steps are aligned and make sense as a whole. At this stage, you make sure that HOW and WHAT matches the expectations defined for this project. Test on different devices, add automation to streamline the future improvements, make sure it actually works.
  4. Done.
    The project is DONE when the teams have a chance to clean up the side effects of their work, not when it went LIVE. If you leave things without reaching done-done state, you will generate tech debt which gets costly pretty quick. Any debt comes with interest, and you (mainly the engineering team) will have to pay it.
  5. Monitoring & future improvements.
    Review the product regularly and make sure it works as intended. Keep an eye on bugs and errors. If possible, address any UX concerns, and don’t assume your work is done, and the project can be put into “maintenance mode” for the next two years.

Home DIY door replacement as an allegory for software projects.

I recently decided to replace one of the internal doors with bi-folds. When I finished the installation and failed, I realised that this is exactly what happens within software engineering when the initial project fails — primarily due to not well-defined requirements, insufficient research, poor preparation etc. Similar issues contributed to my misery after installing the door. After hours of fight in heat, the final “product” looked good, but “bugs” in functionality added more work for the next day. The “go live” date had to be moved!

Let’s go step by step and identify what happened and what went wrong.

Preparation for my little Door Replacement Project.

WHY

  • We need doors that will be smaller, space-saving.
  • The bedroom is on the south wall. It would be nice to let the light fall into the rest of the house when the doors are closed (and they will be in summer due to aircon).

WHAT

  • Bi-fold doors.

CHALLENGES

  • Is it possible to fit bi-folds into the current door frame?
  • Can I do it myself, or I need a contractor to do the job?
  • Cost — not that important.
  • Timeline — Finish the job within a month before we start living together.

Defining door-related requirements sounds very simple and a bit more natural, and you must apply the same principles to software engineering. Think before you do, agree on what you need, what is important and communicate it the best you can. This way, you will avoid confusion, assumptions, overblown costs, underestimated timelines and disappointment. It is essential to review all requirements and ensure the project is even possible before it officially starts.

I went on a journey to investigate the challenges, estimate cost and effort. I had to learn a little more about how such doors look and how they are installed. Since I never used such doors, I’ve ended up watching some YT videos. In the end, the conclusion was: it should be possible to install them in the current frame and should be enough to do it on my own.

Figuring out some minor details…

  • Colour: Just white, nothing fancy.
  • Style: Simple, nothing fancy
  • Challenge: Should we buy or build from scratch?

My door example is simple. You will likely need UX and UI teams to go through iterations of users testing, designs and functional requirements. Make sure the engineering team provide input at this stage. They will bring a lot of improvements to your projects, and by the time it hits them, they will already understand what needs to be done and how to approach it. Transparency is the key, and engineers need to be involved early. Leave this typical waterfall approach behind and involved key persons as early as possible.

With a limited choice of doors on the market and my skillset not even close to building such a thing from scratch, we decided to buy new doors.

There is time and place for both built vs bought, and I feel that way too often, we pick off-the-shelf solution for simple challenges- they come with a cost, mainly in the form of performance when software engineers decide to go with a heavy library that does everything, instead of writing a couple of small functions that do exactly what is needed.

This is a manual on how to install doors in frame. Doesn’t that look like typical documentation for some API? Hard to understand, missing details and hard to “navigate”. I was asking myself, “and that’s it???” :)

Installation, deployment, testing…

When you assign tickets to engineers and don’t explain them during refinement or planning sessions, they will go through a similar struggle — trying to understand what the ticker says and wondering if they haven’t missed anything. The worst part of this is that they can’t even ask for clarification, and any attempt for clarification is nearly impossible.

I properly invested my time reading the requirements, trying a few things, laying down all the parts, and figuring out where they go. Slowly it all started to make sense, and instructions became clear. I was lucky that this manual was just “good enough” and the whole project is simple.

Like every typical software project, things look complicated and sometimes impossible when the team looks at it as a whole. Don’t stress out. When you include the team and help, they will go through the requirements step by step and slice them into small, manageable chunks. Whatever works for the team to digest the content and split the impossible project into tiny manageable bits. Now they are ready to deliver.

It’s just proof that I didn’t think about every detail during my earlier planning, and I missed a few critical bits. The project’s requirements were not entirely up to scratch. Ohh… let’s fix it and test it again (properly!).

Teams should always test their changes or you might end up with pretty but non-functional doors.

Doors work, and “customers” are happy. What’s next?

Project done! … Right?

The project is DONE when the team had a chance to clean up all the side effects, not when it went LIVE. In many places project is considered done when it’s live and started making money. Old code is never cleaned up and old APIs are not decommissioned. That’s very short-sighted and will lead in the future to a never-ending battle between New Feature vs Cleaning the Backlog.

If you leave things behind, you will pay for it sooner or later. It is hard to maintain legacy code and “almost” not needed servers, apps and APIs. It takes a toll on the team and often means extra cost and complexity.

That’s where my project ended at the moment, as I have more things to do before finishing up these small details. We are not moving into this room yet, and when I get to the last stage, which is going to be wall painting, I will finish off the doors and clean up these few little things left behind.

I did exactly what companies often do! I found an excuse not to “decommission old code and clean up the backlog”… but you know the difference?

I have visibility of what is ahead, the next projects and how I can optimise my time. I can decide not to clean up the backlog now because I plan to do it a bit later as part of something else and, as a result, waste less time and be more efficient.

After the cleanup, my project is going to be done-done ;)

Future planning twist…

But I guess this is a topic that deserves a separate blog post…

I am a London-based software engineering consultant and change-maker who helps companies solve genuine challenges and remove limitations. From guiding how a healthy organisation looks like, including the best structure, attitude and culture, to find the right balance between creative freedom, processes and true passion amongst teams. The #oneteam culture is at the core of everything I do and everything an organisation should strive for to succeed.

I help individuals to become better leaders and professionals. I’m coaching and mentoring software engineers and teams to help them reach their goals and prepare for the future unknown. I went through this journey myself, and I understand how hard it is to let go of who we are to become who we want to be.

Highly accomplished and results-oriented professional with background in leadership, software engineering, automotive, photography and design.