How to Manage a Software Development Team — Whether or Not You’re a Developer

Management doesn’t come naturally to everyone. But you can still oversee software development effectively and successfully — even if you’re not a developer yourself.
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Management doesn’t come easily to many people. This is especially true if you’re leading a team with a skill set that doesn’t fall within your realm of expertise. When you’re overseeing a software development team, which includes professionals with highly specialized qualifications, it may feel daunting, particularly when you don’t have the same knowledge and experience.

Even if you do come from a development background — say, if you’re the chief technology officer (CTO) and have spent time in the software trenches — you’ll find that management is a whole different game. 

That’s not to say you can’t manage a software development team. You absolutely can. Here’s how.

1. Define Goals and Expectations

In software development, gathering requirements is typically the first step in the project. Requirements refer to the minimum specifications a product must meet in order to be declared complete and successful. 

Requirements are important factors in determining your overall goals for the project. You’ll probably have other goals, too. The essential part is laying out the specific expectations and objectives so that the software development team is able to meet them. In addition to the goals, it is also important to define the way to achieve them, if the team will be focused on fast or high-quality results.

2. Divvy up the Tasks

You know there are different roles within a software development team, including the UX designers and the quality assurance (QA) specialists, along with the developers themselves. But even within those departments and teams, there are diverse responsibilities and specialties.

As a manager, you need to understand the responsibilities within individual categories and divide up the tasks accordingly. For example, among the software developers, understand the distinctions among full-stack, back-end, and front-end developers, so you can assign roles accordingly and make sure everyone knows who’s supposed to be doing what. 

3. Conduct Regular One-on-One Meetings

When you’re responsible for an entire project, you’re usually focused on the big picture, rather than the individual pieces. But it’s important to understand the smaller components that contribute to the product’s development. 

Having regular one-on-ones with team members will not only keep you informed about how the project is progressing, but they will also give your employees the space to share any thoughts or concerns they might have. This is also a way to better understand and get to know the various personalities on your team and conceptualize how they can better work together.

4. Afford Your Team Members Autonomy

Nobody likes to be micromanaged. And managers who micromanage often introduce more issues than they prevent or resolve. Recognize that, whether or not you hired the members of your team, they were hired for a reason, and that reason is that they’re talented.

Does that mean every team member at every level should have the same level of responsibility and autonomy? No. But to the extent that it’s possible, empower your employees to act independently. Some may even have trouble not deferring to you. If you find that that’s the case, find ways to encourage them. For example, let them know when they can make a particular decision on their own.

5. Prioritize

Part of managing a project and team effectively is knowing which issues require urgent attention and which can be left on the table for the moment, along with what takes precedence at a given moment. In other words, you’ll need to prioritize tasks.

You’ll also need to prioritize on behalf of the team. If you can handle tasks that don’t fall within their purview, try to take them off their plates — maybe even working on them yourself.

6. Establish Channels and Methods of Communication

Remote and on-site teams alike need channels for communicating smoothly and efficiently. Establish multiple ways of getting in touch, such as Slack, Zoom, email, and so on.

In addition to determining how you’ll communicate, share these expectations with your team. Decide which methods should be used at various times. If, for example, someone has a question that requires urgent attention, you might ask them to use Slack. Meanwhile, if they need to discuss an issue in-depth, a face-to-face meeting over Zoom could be the answer.

7. Use Collaboration and Project-Management Tools

Collaboration is critical to bringing a project to fruition. How can you enhance this important quality in your team? Project-management tools are often at least part of the answer. Platforms like Trello, Wrike, Asana, and many others will allow you and others to visualize progress and see how the pieces fit together. Plus, you can assign individual tasks and due dates to one or multiple task owners, so everyone knows how they fit into the bigger picture.

8. Build a Chain of Command

Make it clear from the get-go how your team will operate. If something should go wrong, whom should they inform first? It might be you, but lower-level team members could have an intermediary to whom they should escalate the issue.

This applies to you, too. Issues may arise that fall outside your knowledge or area of expertise. Know who to notify and ask if you find yourself in that situation. 

9. Be Consistent

Unpredictability is difficult for everyone. And when it’s a quality in a manager, it can be exhausting and impossible to contend with. That’s why it’s important to be as consistent as possible in terms of your expectations, policies, and practices. 

One part of this is remembering that everyone on the project contributes to its ultimate success. Don’t uphold the software developers and dismiss the opinions of other members of the team because of their different skill sets. You need to understand that these professionals work together to achieve strong outcomes.

10. Ask Questions

Whether or not you come from a technology background, you won’t have all the answers at all times. And that’s okay — nobody expects you to know everything. If you have a question, just ask. 

Perhaps a team member uses a technical term you don’t understand, or maybe you’re curious about how a particular task affects the end product. Ultimately, it’s far better to ask than to pretend you know the answer. If you do the latter, you’ll run into trouble now or later. But if you address it when it comes up, then you’ll be able to proceed with the knowledge you need.

Management is rarely a straightforward process. Some people are natural leaders, but that doesn’t mean the skill can’t be learned. No matter what your knowledge or experience, you can lead a team to success — and this process can help.

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