Setting A Realistic Software Development Timeline

When software developers make plans to develop software, they need to estimate the amount of time it will take to complete the development project. Doing so can be tricky when you consider all of the different steps your team has to go through to develop the software and all the tasks that need to be done by various team members.

However, setting a realistic timeline is critical to ensuring that your project is completed by launch. A timeline that's not realistic or isn't properly planned out will result in development delays, which can cause your project to go over budget. Estimating a realistic timeline to ensure a successful project is never easy and it’s incredibly difficult to be 100% accurate. Following these best practices will help you ensure better accuracy and help you understand why delays occur.

Why Using A System Is Crucial

Putting systems in place helps visualize the timeline for both your development team and for all stakeholders involved. Systems will ensure that everyone understands who is responsible for what, and so that you can easily track and monitor your team’s progress.

Without systems in place, it will be more difficult to get everybody on the same page, especially if you’re relying on multiple teams to complete the project. And if a change in requirements occurs during the development process, it may be tricky to adjust your timeline accordingly without the use of certain systems. Some of these systems can be beneficial to creating and monitoring a realistic timeline:

  • Kanban - Kanban is a workflow management system commonly used for the agile methodology. The word “Kanban” is Japanese for “visual board.” Using Kanban, you can visualize your workflow using a board with cards and columns.
  • Gantt chart - The Gantt chart is incredibly useful for visualizing your project timeline. Using a Gantt chart, you can visualize your project schedule and view the dependency relationships between tasks and the current status of your schedule.
  • SOPs - An SOP (standard operating procedure) helps maximize efficiency and quality of performance by providing your team with a shared set of instructions on how to complete their tasks. An SOP helps keep everyone on the same page.
  • Project management tools - Project management tools, such as Jira and Azure DevOps, help you manage your software development project in a variety of ways. Tools such as these not only provide customizable workflows, issue tracking, progress reporting, and more, they also tend to include features such as Gantt charts and Kanban boards.

Planning: 2-4 Weeks

The initial part of your timeline is the planning stages of development. During this stage, you'll identify the scope of your project and get approval from all stakeholders. You should set aside between two and four weeks for this stage based on your stakeholders' availability. During the planning stage, you should accomplish these tasks:

  • Determine the system requirements of the software to be developed.
  • List all ideas and features that will work together to meet the established system requirements.
  • Identify the type of audience, users and roles you're targeting and what their needs are.
  • Break down what you want the application to look and feel like.
  • Plan for the necessary software environments that you will need during this period, including dev, test, stage, and production.
  • Plan the architecture of the application to ensure it will perform as envisioned, integrate with other applications, be extensible to meet future needs, and of course be secure. 
  • Review your application design to discuss last-minute changes.
  • Set the project's scope by identifying what features should be prioritized for the initial release vs. what features should be implemented in subsequent releases.

Analysis: 2 Weeks

Once you've completed the planning stages of your software build and your stakeholders have signed off on your initial plan, analyze that plan so that you can create a realistic timeline for completion.

  • Prioritize the software features and requirements that need to be in production for this software project to be successful. Prioritize these according to importance, duration, how soon the software is needed, and other important factors. Start with high level requirements (epic features) and break them down further into smaller, more predictable, features (or stories).  This will help tremendously with accuracy.  
  • Analyze your resource availability. Evaluate your team and determine what tasks they can take on, who has what skills, who will play what role, and whether they can take on multiple tasks at once. It’s critical that the software developers are actually the ones doing the time estimates, and not the stakeholders.  Stakeholders have a tendency to need everything right away, which just isn’t realistic.  In addition, many stakeholders don’t have a thorough understanding of the complexity involved in software development. 
  • Estimate the overall, high-level cost of development by applying a rate to the estimated hours.  Don’t forget to account for time necessary for creating and managing environments, meetings, testing, documentation, bug fixes,  and deployments.  

Design: 2-4 Weeks

Following the planning and analysis stages, you can begin to design the software and create a prototype. Essentially, this is the stage of development where you will design what the software will look like and how it will function. With a prototype in hand, you'll be able to obtain valuable feedback from stakeholders before you begin actual development. This stage should take no more than four weeks to complete and should include the following steps:

  • Create a software design document.
  • Create software wireframes or mockups of the system to be developed for review with stakeholders and users before beginning the software development process. Expect around 80 percent of the time allocated to this stage to be dedicated to this step.
  • Evaluate stakeholder feedback on all aspects of the application, including its use cases and user interface elements.
  • Don’t forget about database design.  While not as visual as the user interface, it’s critically important to get this right as the proper database design will help ensure a high performing application. 

Development & Testing: 4-12 Plus Weeks (in 1-3 week sprints)

The bulk of the timeline should be dedicated to the actual development of the software. However, it's worth noting that the timeline will differ based on the methodology used, the complexity of the software, what features are released and in what order of priority.  Releasing a MVP (minimal viable product) version of the software using an agile methodology is the best and fastest way to get core software into production with only the most critical and prioritized features being deployed initially. Using this methodology, you would work in 1 to 3-week sprints. Done in this manner, you'll have less to test during each sprint, making it easier to address any issues as they are discovered. Using the Agile methodology will allow you to add less critical features to the production software every 1-3 weeks as it’s developed and tested. 

  • List the highest prioritized tasks first. Determine the length of time each task will take to complete.
  • Schedule what tasks should be completed during each sprint.
  • Assign tasks that need to be completed during each sprint to the development and testing teams.
  • Set development milestones and deadlines for both completion of development tasks and testing.
  • Allocate time to address any issues discovered during testing in each sprint.

Using a waterfall methodology, you would need to dedicate a significant amount of testing after the development is done. Then, of course, the development team would have to fix the software based on the test results, starting the waterfall process all over again. There's a lot of risk of falling behind schedule using such a waterfall methodology since any issues found during testing could require your team to complete a significant amount of rework.

Deployment: 1-2 Weeks

This stage is largely dependent on your software deployment strategy, platform and environments. Regardless of where you deploy it, however, there will be some work to do post-deployment to ensure that everything goes smoothly with software updates and bug fixes. If you're using a waterfall methodology, you'll need to do more extensive testing prior to deployment. If you're using an agile methodology and leveraging good DevOps practices, the deployment stage could happen almost instantaneously upon a successful test. In general, expect the deployment stage to take anywhere from a few days to two weeks:

  • Perform regression testing to make sure changes made over the course of development haven't affected previously developed and tested code.
  • Perform final end-user testing to make sure the application works as intended in the real world.
  • Allocate time to address potential issues found in the final round of testing.
  • Deploy the software to production (this is a step that doesn't take long as it can be automated using a continuous deployment model). Note that if you're using an agile methodology, testing is done during sprints, which means deployment can be done even faster.

Maintenance: Forever!

The development cycle never really finishes once you've deployed your software. For instance, there may have been additional features that you wanted to add but didn't in an earlier iteration because it would have extended your timeline and delayed your launch. These features must be developed and rolled out at certain points in the future. You'll need to set a timeline for when these features are developed and implemented.

You will continue to receive feedback that includes requests for other features and notes about bugs, making regular maintenance a requirement to keep your software as functional as possible for your users. Again, this can all be done efficiently under an agile methodology, but the steps that you'll need to schedule throughout the software maintenance life cycle include:

  • Identifying modifications: This step involves identifying software upgrades and software patch requests.
  • Analyzing modification requests: Determine whether the modifications recommendations you've identified are feasible cost-wise and practical time-wise.
  • Designing: During this step, you'll determine the new framework of the software to fix issues or add features.
  • Implementing changes: Once designed, you'll build the code and implement them.
  • Testing: You must test all changes to make sure they function as intended and to make sure they don't change the existing software.
  • Delivery: Once tested, you can deliver the modifications to your software.

Customization For Each Project

Every software development project is different. Your timeline will vary based on numerous factors, such as how strict the deadline is and how big the project is. For example, a small mobile app with limited features will be easier and quicker to develop than a massive software program with hundreds of functions. Consider the stages previously listed as more of a template that you can customize to your specific project's needs and requirements.

  • Start/end dates of the project: The start and end dates depend on the project's scope and the resources at your disposal. Of course, the end date can also be set in stone by stakeholders for business reasons.  If you have a hard deadline, some feature releases may have to be cut out or delayed.  
  • Milestones and deadlines: The milestones and deadlines you establish will depend on how much work is required per task and how big your team is.
  • Project lifecycle phases: The project lifecycle stages will essentially stay the same. Their duration will just depend on your project.
  • Tasks that must be completed and their order: Different projects require different tasks, and the tasks required by your project will need to be prioritized by you. The duration of these tasks will be dependent on their complexity and the resources you have available to complete them.
  • The team handles each subset of tasks: Finally, the size of your team and the number of resources at your disposal affect how long each subset of tasks takes to complete.

Visualizing The Timeline

Once you've broken down your project lifecycle and you've created a realistic timeline, it’s time to visualize it. A visualized timeline makes it easy for you, your team, and your stakeholders to monitor the project's development at a glance to determine if you're on schedule or not.

Definite Steps

If you're working with a single team to develop your software, every step will be definite: once the team completes a step, they'll move on to the next step.

Flexible Steps

If more than one team is working on the software, things get a little more tricky. It means that the steps will be more flexible, since your teams may have to wait for each other before they can move on to the next step.

Working With A Realistic Timeline

It's essential to set a realistic software development timeline for your project. The software development schedule is the backbone of any software project, and many people rely on it to get their jobs done. Much care is needed in creating one. The key components that come into play when creating a software development timeline are resources, software development lifecycle, project phases, tasks required, and their order.

If you have a team working on the software with only one definite timeline, it will be easier to manage. If more than one team is working together or there are many resources used in completing the software, things get more complicated. You'll want to set more flexible timelines for these types of software projects but still be rigorous in the process.B

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