Dev Time Mastery: Strategies to Tackle Unpredictability in Early-Stage Startups
How Streamlined Development Processes Rescue Early-Stage Startups
Just because your early-stage startup has a small development team doesn’t mean you don’t need software development processes in place — quite the contrary. But not every process works for a company that size.
This article highlights a few process methodologies well-suited for early-stage startups and recommends tools that help make for a smoother implementation.
Now, if you’re wondering whether your company has matured to the point where these processes are a must-have, ask yourself these questions:
- Have your delivery timelines slipped or become unpredictable?
- Have challenges appeared in feature prioritization and dependency management?
- Has cross-team coordination become difficult as your development team has grown?
If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, stop and read this article. But before we dive in, remember the best process is the one that works for your specific set of circumstances. This article explains how you can apply the basics, but we encourage you to refine your processes on an ongoing basis. Because if there’s any constant truth to software development processes, it’s that they rarely remain fixed. So, stay ready to adapt them to new challenges. Often, failing to adapt can be as or more debilitating than having no process at all.
Familiarize Yourself with the Options
Let’s cut to the chase: The three software development processes that we recommend early-stage startups pursue include:
For an in-depth analysis of each, check out this article.
Now, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of these before. (Probably because developers have opinions on each of these bordering on religious fervor). But as we mentioned, any process is better than no process. So don’t overthink it when the time comes to choose one. You can always pivot to a different one as circumstances change or if what you picked doesn’t work for your organization. Run with what feels simplest, experiment, and stay flexible. Give any starting point a moment before prematurely jumping ship and moving on to another approach. A breakthrough could be just around the corner.
Tools at Your Disposal
You know what makes every project easier? The right tool. These tools can make quite the impact on your organization as you work to implement your development processes:
- Trello: Use this if you’re building from scratch or want to avoid decision paralysis.
- Jira: Use this if you have prior process experience, have convictions about the process you would like, or have the time to learn the tool inside and out.
- Other: There are many other capable tools out there; if you have experience with them and they fit your needs, start there.
Also, be aware that other parts of your organization may benefit from or want to use process management tools. Coordinate with all your teams to see what could work best for everyone. Again, don’t try to force a fit, but if you can, adopting a single tool across most, if not the entire company, can be a significant efficiency advantage.
Lastly, remember that tools are just one part of the equation and will not solve all your issues. It takes capable product/project managers, willing developers, and buy-in from the executive team to make this work. If any of these factors are missing or inadequate, no process or tool adoption will overcome the issues that started this journey in the first place.
Based on three decades of startup experience, here are some recommended starting points for your organization. Pick the one that most closely maps to your current situation:
- KISS (Keep it Simple): Run with Kanban (or something inspired by it) as a coordinated, super to-do list. Trello will be easiest here, but Jira is worth considering if you’re up for it.
- More Ambitious: Run with Scrum and do the work upfront to get smart on Jira.
We won’t get too deep into the micro-mechanics of these. Those details must be shaped to meet your specific environment (see above).
Tips for Adopting Scrum
The Scrum approach can get complicated fast and overwhelm small teams unfamiliar with its adoption. Here are some helpful tips based on real-world experience to make your scrums more successful:
- Pick a sprint duration. Two weeks is ideal in a high-paced, early-stage startup company setting. One week is too fast, while three weeks only accomplish marginally more output than two weeks.
- Designate a single Scrum Master as the sole point of authority and coordination for executing the process.
- Exercise caution when applying story points or similar estimation methods. If you’re ready, willing, and able to use these methods, feel free, but don’t overreach to start. Don’t treat story points as top for developers. Remember, your teammates are humans, not robots.
- You will always under/over estimate work throughput. Some sprints will go sideways. The goal is not perfection but much-improved predictability.
- Advice for when things go wrong:
- Business emergencies happen, executives renege on their commitment to the process, unplanned dependencies materialize, and more. If your process derails or gets interrupted/overcome by events, end the sprint and regroup.
- If you fall short of intended deliverables, study what happened (see retrospective below) and adjust. Were you too optimistic? Was the problem inadequate requirements, or were any critical dependencies misunderstood? Answering these questions will help make your next sprint better.
A Suggested Meeting Structure
Use this meeting structure (managed by the Scrum Master), which assumes two-week sprint windows, to keep things moving efficiently:
Run of show
|First Monday of the sprint||
10 minutes; assuming 3-5 developers, allowing for flexibility depending on team size
|Tue–Fri the first week and Mon–Thu the second week (8 days total)||
|Final Friday of the sprint||
|Final Friday of the sprint||
This meeting schedule requires 6–8 hours per team member for each two-week sprint. Make sure to account for this in your overall planning.
Scrum Master and Product Manager Coordination
The Scrum Master and Product Manager should be in near-constant communication. This proactive engagement helps prioritize decisions, improve requirements gathering, and fend off other issues that would otherwise introduce daily distractions and decision/meeting fatigue to the development team.
To ensure that communication happens, the Scrum Master and Product Manager should maintain a weekly two-hour meeting for backlog grooming and preparation for upcoming sprint planning. The goal is that when the biweekly sprint planning meeting occurs, the most important things have already been sorted out, and the conversation can focus on the immediate tasks at hand.
Within sprints, the Scrum Master will likely need short conversations with team members to understand specific technical issues, dependencies, etc. Have these conversations when needed while remaining mindful of unnecessary distractions. Importantly, you can track and control those distractions more easily when you empower the Scrum Master to coordinate those conversations.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to software development processes. To that end, we've worked to avoid being too prescriptive. This review is also quite condensed, not covering topics like how to handle disruption, examples of failed implementations, and others. But that is information for another article. Still, use what you've read here as a launching point for you to explore further. Ask yourself questions like:
- Which of these items worked for you?
- Which didn’t?
- What do you think is missing?
- What do you disagree with?
The ability to reflect, ask these questions, and take corrective action is at the heart of a thriving, predictable software development process. So, give your organization the time and space to go about this process thoughtfully and use the work as an opportunity to learn along the way.