When you’re a non-technical founder trying to build custom software, finding the right development partner is crucial.
Almost all of the founders we work with discover there’s a lot more to custom software development projects than they first assumed. And nine times out of 10, a project's features, goals or timelines can change significantly once our experienced team takes a look.
But having a non-tech background shouldn’t be an obstacle to finding the right dev team. You just need to know what to look for.
Below are the five most important things to look for when choosing a custom development partner.
A Strategic Partner
First and foremost, look for an agency that wants to be a strategic partner. This will be a team of people who are willing to take some agency and ownership of your project, will push back if needed and will work with you to build a solution that actually drives business value.
“Some clients look for a yes man who does exactly what they say,” says Kingsmen Software CEO and partner Bill Clerici. “But that's not a good quality in a development shop, to just say, yes, they can do whatever.”
One of the most commonly overlooked benefits of working in partnership with a custom dev shop is the “objective and unbiased” stance they take with your project, says Yauhen Zaremba, senior director of demand generation at PandaDoc.
“The bottom line? If they believe that the way you have outlined the project, or how you want to handle it, might pose some serious risks to either the project itself or the company as a whole, they will let you know.”
When you work in partnership with an agency, you also get to leverage their experience and avoid all of the mistakes they’ve made in the past.
“Imagine the institutional knowledge we have when there is ‘muscle memory’ of previous projects, when we understand why things were done a certain way, and when there is 15-20 years of continuity and innovation,” says Sarah Toth, head of partner marketing at Tapcart. “That is almost impossible to find in-house.”
But you only get access to that muscle memory when you choose to work with an agency who sees your relationship as a partnership — one in which they let you share your vision and you let them find the best way to make it a reality.
A Focus on Outcomes, Not Inputs
Software developers often measure themselves against unhelpful standards, says Tyler Hakes, strategy director and principal at content marketing agency Optimist. Hours worked, lines of code written, bugs fixed and tasks completed are all common (and incorrect) methods of measuring productivity.
Don’t tie your development budget to teams that measure output in hours worked. Instead, seek out development partners who focus on delivering business value. Smaller teams are often far more effective at effectively delivering features that drive business growth, even if they work fewer hours at a higher billable rate. They tend to deliver a much higher return on investment, too.
Software developer Martin Fowler also takes an outcome-orientated approach to measuring software development productivity. “If a team delivers lots of functionality - whether we measure it in lines of code, function points, or stories - that functionality doesn't matter if it doesn't help the user improve their activity,” he writes.
Focusing on poor measures of productivity tends to produce unhelpful features that bloat the code base, slow performance and make it harder to add new features in the future, he says.
It’s better to have a software team that delivers quality over quantity.
A Commitment to Transparency and Communication
Customers appreciate receiving as much information and as many updates about the state of their project as possible. That’s why they should look for a dev shop with transparent communication processes in place, says Bill Clerici.
Frequent check-ins are key to creating this kind of transparent environment, says the team at BlueOptima. “The best way to keep everyone engaged will be unique to your business, but whatever the method, consistency is key. Weekly meetings via video call or sending written updates on Slack are a good place to start, as long as they are provided throughout the development process.”
Look for a dev shop that understands the importance of tailoring their communication strategy to your business. That means using your tools and scheduling meetings when it works for you.
At the same time, understand the importance of making time for these meetings in the first place. The more frequently you communicate with your development partner, the more likely everyone will be pleased with the project’s outcome.
A Proven Process
Has your dev shop been there a hundred times before? Do they have a repeatable process that they can implement for almost any development project? You should look for a resounding “Yes” to both of those questions.
It’s inevitable in a big software project that you're going to hit roadblocks and complications. Having a hardened process that accounts for those issues is enormously helpful.
Custom dev teams that can accurately predict timelines and budgets start their projects differently. Rather than dive straight into code, they look to understand your objectives, the features your team wants and any potential problems that could cause delays. Bonus points if they create an in-depth roadmap for the project.
Timelines cause some of the biggest project management issues, but this kind of careful planning at the start of projects helps avoid them, says Maria Mast, a professional with deep experience in health IT and project management.
“One of the best ways to avoid delay in timelines is to brainstorm at the beginning of the project,” Mast says. “Ask the team, ‘What will break during this process?’ When a bump in the timeline does occur, gather everyone and find the best way forward and around it.”
Look for a dev shop that can handle the entire process, from intake through to development and ongoing support.
Building software is just one part of application lifecycle management. You need teams capable of handling work intake, budgeting, testing and providing ongoing support. Complete service is often a much better investment.
“Finding a trustworthy, full-service development company that can centralize all of your software-development needs will prove more cost-effective, more fruitful, and less stressful than any other options combined,” writes Michael Sweeney, head of marketing at Clearcode.
Learn How Kingsmen Software Can Help You
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