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Software development team structure: deciding factors, approaches, roles, and responsibilities

By Victoria Shashkina, Innovation Analyst
Published on

Key takeaways:

The structure of a software development team depends on a range of factors. These include the type and complexity of your software product, the time you have to deliver the product, and the allocated budget.

Whether you opt for Waterfall or Agile development directly impacts your workflows and the team composition. A project management methodology shapes up the size of your team, the responsibilities of team members, and the relations within the team.

A typical software development team structure includes: a business analyst, a product owner, a project manager, a product designer, a software architect, software developers, software testing engineers, including test automation engineers, as well as a DevOps engineer.

To assemble the perfect development team, carefully analyze the prerequisites and determine the team size, choose the team structure that best suits your project — whether specialists, generalists, or a hybrid team composition — and ensure you have all the necessary software development team roles covered. With the essential roles covered, set up project management software to speed up daily operations and provide for more transparency of the project processes, as well as establish productive communication.

So, you have this fantastic product idea and are eager to bring it to life. Or you’ve finally come up with a vision of a software solution that would take your enterprise processes to the next level. Or you’re planning on giving your company a complete digital overhaul. If you’re new to software development, realizing those plans, however inspiring they sound, might give you chills. Suppose you decide to hire a dedicated development team to bring your ideas to life. But how do you assemble the right team? And what is the perfect software development team structure?

We understand your confusion and are here to give you a leg up. Below, we answer all of the essential questions related to setting up a product development team that would make your project a success.

Key factors behind a software development team structure

Every product begins with the people. The way you map your business objectives to the roles in a software development team will likely determine your project’s success. Or failure. So, when designing a software development team structure, make sure it reflects such factors as:

The type and complexity of your project

Before you step into the recruitment craze, you have to work out the scope of your project. If you’re about to build a product prototype, a team of four may be enough to accomplish the task. But if you’re planning on launching a brand-new application with multiple features and third-party integrations, the number of team members will certainly increase. Here are some ideas of how project scope and a software development team structure may correlate:

Project scope/stage Team size Team Roles
Discovery/Proof of concept

Up to 5 specialists

Product owner (usually on the client’s side), project manager, business analyst, software architect, UI/UX designer

MVP development

6+ specialists

Product owner (usually on the client’s side), project manager, business analyst, UI/UX designer, software engineers, test engineers

Product development

Agile: usually up to nine specialists; if a project is large-scale, several Agile teams may work together.

Waterfall: no team size limit; the specific headcount will depend on the type and complexity of an application

Product owner (usually on the client’s side), project manager, business analyst, UI/UX designer, software architect, software engineers, test engineers.

Optionally: test automation engineers, performance engineers, DevOps engineers, security engineers

The time you have to complete the project

How quickly you need to turn your product around will influence the team structure and size, too. Quite obviously, with fewer team members, it may take longer to complete the project. So, if you have an idea of a state-of-the-art product that needs to be developed from scratch and on a tight deadline, you might have to assemble an extended team of senior engineers or a group of full-stack engineers who will be able to cover all needs and deliver results quickly and efficiently.

The budget allocated to development

Being inextricably intertwined with the factors above, the available budget would certainly affect every decision you make — from how many team members you can hire to the seniority of specialists you can bring in to how feature-rich your product can be when turned around. To reduce project expenses without sacrificing quality at the initial stages of development, consider opting for any of the Agile project management methodologies. You could deliver in increments, focusing on high-priority features first, and have more cost flexibility.

Approaches to software development and how they affect the development team structure

Whether you opt for Waterfall or Agile would directly impact your workflows and a software development team structure. A project management methodology you choose to go with shapes up the size of your team, the responsibilities of team members, and the relations within the team. Let’s catch up on the key facts about Waterfall and Agile and see how their peculiarities are reflected in the development team composition.

Waterfall Agile
Software development process

The development process is divided into distinct sequential phases

The development process is broken down into two to four-week sprints

Project scope

The scope is defined in advance. Changes are usually limited

Scope changes are expected and allowed during the development

Client involvement

Requires clients to be available at milestones for deliverables acceptance

Requires clients participation throughout the project

Feature prioritization

Features are prioritized at the start of a project on a WBS basis

Features are prioritized at the start of each sprint and issues are managed according to priorities

Focus and mindset

Project mindset. The focus is on accomplishing the project

Product mindset. The focus is on delivering value for the customer

Quality assurance

Software testing follows software engineering

Testing is performed in parallel with the development

Pricing model

Risks are lower with Fixed Price

Works well with Time & Material

So, how do these differences influence the software development team structure?

A traditional Waterfall project team is built based on hierarchical relations between team members, so there are managers and subordinates with well-defined responsibilities. Such a team structure grants a project manager more control over the project workflows. They are, too, responsible for critical decisions.

Agile teams, on the other hand, are self-organized and self-managed. Still, there are organizational leaders, like a Scrum Master in Scrum or a Service Delivery Manager in Kanban. Their responsibilities are quite different from the responsibilities of a traditional Waterfall project manager though as they are focused more on fostering relationships within the team and creating a working environment where each team member can be effective. Spanning a maximum of nine to ten people, Agile teams allow a certain degree of autonomy, so the team members have the freedom to prioritize their workloads and shape their workflows the way they want.

The table below summarizes the key differences between the teams following sequential approaches and those adhering to Agile.

Waterfall team Agile Team

Top-down management. The project manager is responsible for delivering results

Self-management. Every team member is responsible for the delivered results

A team may work on several projects at a time

A team focuses on one project

Focus on evaluating the performance of each individual

Focus on assessing the performance of the whole team

Distinct roles and titles

Cross-functional talent

No team size limit

Two-pizza approach with four to ten people per team

A lower degree of team synchronization due to a larger team size and a vertical hierarchy

Small teams with a high degree of coordination and synchronization

Who is who among the members of a software development team?

A typical software development team structure includes a business analyst, a product owner, a project manager, a product designer, a software architect, software developers, software testing engineers, including test automation engineers, as well as a DevOps engineer.

Business analyst

  • Understands customer’s business processes

  • Translates customer business needs into requirements

A business analyst dives deep into a customer’s workflows and analyzes stakeholder feedback to help a client formulate what their wants look like and align a customer’s vision with what a development team is producing. They translate an abstract product idea into a set of tangible requirements.

What a BA enriches a product development team with is a profound understanding of business processes from various perspectives and the ability to shape up a software product that creates maximum business value. A business analyst may step in even before a software development team structure is defined and continue to bridge the gap between the customer and the team during later stages of development.

Product owner

  • Holds responsibility for a product vision and evolution

  • Makes sure a final product meets customer requirements

Holding more responsibility for a product’s success than any other development team member, a product owner is a decision-maker. Balancing both business needs and market trends, they define a business strategy, shape up the product vision, make sure it satisfies customer needs, and manage a product backlog. Associated mainly with flexible Agile environments, a product owner must work well in scenarios where requirements and workflows frequently change.

The responsibilities of a BA and a PO sound quite similar. What’s the difference between the two, and is there a need for both in one project?

The critical difference is that a product owner provides the vision of a product without diving deep into how it is technically implemented, while a business analyst bridges the gap between a customer and a team, being a bit more on the technical side. So, a PO is more customer-oriented, while a BA is often more focused on the project. Professional business analysts are usually qualified to take over some of a product owner’s tasks, like managing the product backlog, modeling workflows, and others.

Project manager

  • Makes sure a product or its part is delivered on time and within budget

  • Manages and motivates the software development team

In sequential models, a project manager is responsible for distributing tasks across team members, planning work activities, and updating project status.

In Agile projects where the focus is on self-management, transparency, and shared ownership, a PM sets up the vision of a product, maintains transparency, fosters communication, searches for improvements in the development process, and makes sure a team delivers more value with each iteration.

Some people believe that there’s no need for a PM in an Agile environment with similar roles, like a Service Delivery Manager or a Scrum Master, but this is not entirely true. However, if your company is running multiple Agile projects simultaneously, having dedicated PMs is vital. They would connect the dots between high-level stakeholder requirements and day-to-day task execution on a team level, while, say, a Scrum Master would manage things within the team.

UX/UI designer

  • Transforms a product vision into user-friendly designs

  • Creates user journeys for the best user experience and highest conversion rates

There are two aspects to the product design process — user experience (UX) design and user interface (UI) design.

The UX part stands for thinking out an entire journey of a user’s interaction with a product. A UX designer is, thus, involved in such activities as user research, persona development, information architecture design, wireframing, prototyping, and more. A UI designer, in turn, devises intuitive, easy-to-use, and eye-pleasing interfaces for a product.

A UI/UX designer would accompany you throughout the development lifecycle, helping you achieve business goals via functional and engaging user experiences, as well as analyzing, evaluating, and enhancing those experiences over time.

Software architect

  • Designs a high-level software architecture

  • Selects appropriate tools and platforms to implement the product vision

  • Sets up code quality standards and performs code reviews

An expert-level software engineer, an architect is the one who makes executive software design decisions in an app development team. You will need one if you deal with a software product with complex requirements or legacy software that calls for profound changes. A software architect decides which services and databases should communicate together, how integrations should work, and how to ensure that the product is secure and stable.

Software developer

  • Engineers and stabilizes the product

  • Solves any technical problems emerging during the development lifecycle

A software developer does the actual job and codes an application. And just like an app features a front end and a back end, there are front-end and back-end developers.

Front-end developers create the part of an application that users interact with, ensuring that an app offers an equally smooth experience to all — no matter the device, platform, or operational system.

Back-end developers, in turn, implement the core of an app — its algorithms and business logic. Experienced back-end developers not only write code but also do the tasks of an architect — for example, devise an app architecture or design and implement the necessary integrations.

There are full-stack developers as well. They can handle all the work at once — from clients to servers to databases, and all the needed integrations.

Software testing engineer

  • Makes sure an application performs according to requirements

  • Spots functional and non-functional defects

The job of a software tester is to verify whether an application meets the requirements — both functional and non-functional ones. Functional requirements define what an application should do, while non-functional requirements specify how it should do that. To verify both, test engineers run various checks, followed by analyzing the test results and reporting on the application quality.

They verify an application from different angles — be it functionality, usability, security, or performance (hence, many types of testing). To keep track of the executed checks and ensure that all of the requirements are covered with tests, QA specialists may create different kinds of testing documentation — from test scenarios to test protocols to test results reports. And experienced QA engineers design and implement quality assurance processes and procedures that help prevent defects at later stages of development.

Test automation engineer

  • Design a test automation ecosystem

  • Write and maintain test scripts for automated testing

A test automation engineer is there to help you test faster and better. To enable that, they develop test automation scripts — small programs that provide reliable and continuous feedback on application quality without any human involvement.

A skilled test automation engineer would help you choose which parts of an application are good candidates for automation and what’s better to be tested manually. They would also design a test automation ecosystem that is easy to maintain and update. Finally, they’ll make sure that your test automation initiative generates as much value as possible at a reasonable cost.

DevOps engineer

  • Facilitates cooperation between development and operations teams

  • Builds CI/CD pipelines for faster delivery

Even in Agile environments, development, and operations teams can be siloed. DevOps engineers serve as a link between the two teams, unifying and automating the software delivery process and helping strike a balance between introducing changes quickly and keeping an application stable. Working together with software developers, system administrators, and operational staff, DevOps engineers oversee and facilitate code releases on a CI/CD basis.

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Why is setting the right team essential for project success?

Setting up the right team is the crucial factor in a project’s success as it is the project team that is responsible for delivering value throughout the project.

It’s a common scenario when a company hires a dedicated team but fails to balance roles and responsibilities. For instance, deciding to go without a product owner — the ultimate visioner responsible for crafting a product that meets customer needs — quite often leads to releasing software that fails to win the hearts of its potential users.

At a daily operations level, too, one can miss opportunities due to poorly thought-out staffing decisions. A project manager may, for instance, overlook the need for a DevOps engineer, thus, preventing themselves from tapping into numerous benefits. For example, in one of our projects, introducing DevOps helped our customer reduce release cycles from ten to two weeks, implement 30+ new features quickly, and achieve a code coverage of 80%.

Mistakes can happen when selecting developers with an appropriate level of expertise. Striving to save budgets, you may feel reluctant to hire senior engineers and opt for less experienced staff. However, to ensure the right proportion of expertise and new perspectives, we would advise staffing your team with both an expert-level developer and those with less experience; the former will ensure technical guidance or even act as a virtual CTO, while the latter would bring fresh ideas to the table.

Four steps to take to assemble a winning software development team

1. Analyze the prerequisites and determine the team size

Evaluate your business goals, the complexity of your project, available budget, and deadlines to make up your mind about a suitable approach to project management. Based on that, estimate the size of your team. If you choose to go with Agile, the perfect team would span four to ten people. Waterfall teams, in turn, are usually quite large and may span up to 15 people. To avoid any management complexities, it may be worth dividing a large team into several sub-teams, each with a lead of its own.

2. Choose a team structure that fits your project

There are three types of team structures — specialists, generalists, and hybrid teams, and each has its pros and cons. When choosing an appropriate team structure, consider this:

Upsides Downsides Appropriate for
Specialists

Team members have narrow areas of responsibility; thus, they can deliver high-quality instances at

Potential communication issues and a chance of building software whose components don’t fit together as smoothly as they could

Projects that require deep expertise in a specific narrow area

Generalists

Team members boast a wide range of skills and are flexible enough to apply their knowledge across a vast range of areas

Potential risks due to a lack of deep expertise

Projects of medium complexity managed according to Agile techniques

Hybrid

Specialists cater for the technical issues that require narrow expertise, while generalists are responsible for integrations and developing software as a whole

Potential management issues due to mixing people with different appro

Large-scale, complex projects with tight deadlines

3. Ensure you have all the necessary software development team roles covered

If you already have in-house resources, evaluate the skills gaps you need to fill in and search for targeted talent to extend your team. If you start anew, make sure your team is balanced and can cover different aspects of development.

4. Facilitate effective communication

Set up project management software to speed up daily operations and provide for more transparency of the project processes. The most popular project management tools include Jira, Trello, Hive, Smartsheet, and others. And to establish productive communication, encourage using messaging apps, like Slack or Microsoft Teams, as they are simpler and faster to use. Don’t forget about verbal communication, too. Video conferencing and regular project briefings may come in handy in resolving misunderstandings and boosting the quality of communication.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Key factors behind a software development team structureThe type and complexity of your projectThe time you have to complete the projectThe budget allocated to developmentApproaches to software development and how they affect the development team structureWho is who among the members of a software development team?Business analystProduct ownerProject managerUX/UI designerSoftware architectSoftware developerSoftware testing engineerTest automation engineerDevOps engineerWhy is setting the right team essential for project success?Four steps to take to assemble a winning software development team
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