How to scale startup software development under time and money pressure

The times, when a software version released on the market once, could successfully, or at least with occasionally released patches and bugfixes, function for years are long gone. Providing solutions in form of services favors maintaining a continuous and dynamic product development, which is also experienced – or primarily at that – by startups. 

However, while in terms of IT giants, users are related to their portfolio or even dependent on it, in terms of startups the situation is more complex. Pressure is added not only by shareholders, but also users whose first impression may decide on existence or non-existence of the software developed by the startup for the market. Therefore, it is in the case of startups, where the entire software development must be approached so that is scalable. Yet, what does it mean?


Scalability – challenge for startups

In short, scalability may be defined as a result of project decisions, and tool selections that will allow for efficient expansion of the functionalities within the software developed by the startup. However, one would make a mistake thinking, that the entire matter may be reduced to ensuring a sufficient number of instances that manage traffic in services of providers such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure. Scalability or lack thereof is determined by a much larger number of technological or organizational factors, that are well worth discussing. 

However, before we do that, it is worth considering what scalability really means in terms of software development. In short it may be defined as the ability of the solution to respond to current, dynamically changing needs.

The aim of scalability is to ensure the same accessibility oto the solution, regardless of how many users are operating it at the current moment. Regardless of whether there are is currently a thousand or a million users connected, they should not experience any difference in using the solution.

Still, in order to make it happen, it is necessary to ensure appropriate server base (one of the features of cloud architecture being ease and automation of adding subsequent instances), but also decisions regarding software architecture, that will be able to utilize the scalable server infrastructure. 

How to ensure scalability and what blocks it?

Before we go into that matter, it is advisable to consider what stands in the way of startups, preventing them from ensuring scalability for their project. One of the largest obstacles in this path is centralization. 

Scaling can take place in three planes: the first one is the enlargement of the entire solution, the second is administrative scalability, why the third one is assumed to be scaling in a geographical sense. Centralization may prove to be a difficult obstacle for scaling in each of these planes. While it is being a decreasing issue in the golden era of cloud infrastructure and proficient Content Delivery Network, but it still imaginable, that depending on one data centre will have a negative effect i.a. on the ability to receive subsequent server instances, managing them, as well as, providing services of the same level of quality regardless of the users’ location. 



How to avoid costly shortcomings?

As already mentioned, an essential factor is pressure placed by the shareholders who, out of obvious reasons, want to see the return on investment. A second group that puts pressure on project development, is the users, who can forgive starting enterprises much less, than corporations, whose services they have been using for years. For startups, all the above translates to far-fetched financial, but also time, limitations. If all interested expect immediate and high quality results, while a matter such as software development process scalability is left in the background. Wrongly.



Readiness to change to Agility rules

Analysts agree, that one of the most severe mistakes, which may be made by startups already during the initial phases of the project, is to establish a particular strategy, a business model or at least a roadmap, and then – unthinking execution where no one will examine the changing environment: users’ interest, first reaction i the media, consultation outcomes, or legal and market situation.

Therefore, at the basis of startups’ software production processes should be accompanied by three main attributes: flexibility, readiness to introduce even drastic changes to already accepted project frameworks, and readiness to react against external factors. This is where the lean startup methodology comes in, allowing dynamically adapt to the changing reality iteratively. Agility may also prove helpful, when adjusted to small teams who work in intense release cycle. Surely, one of the most important factors, is user feedback – not only submitted through troubleshooting modules, but also user reviews in software stores, or their comments in the industry’s media. Satisfying the needs of the end user is what is worth delegating resources to, even if, in terms of startups, they may be limited.  

A final verifier turned out to be the COVID-19 pandemic, during which many companies, including startups, properly prepared for the need of scaling software development processes, could quickly reroute a particular project. In result, many applications, with lightning-fast speed acquired modules allowing for communication, remote work organization, and even teleconferencing.

Largest players led the way in this matter – in the face of acquiring 15 million new users, Microsoft, in a few weeks, managed to upgrade the Microsoft Teams service (which was primarily supposed to consolidate services from the Office 365 package with the remaining portfolio elements) with functions, that made Teams one of the most popular solutions used to organize remote work and process management.

Flexibility and readiness to adapt to dynamically changing reality may seem to be related with forms of organization, project development and communication management. However, scalability of a software development process is related to particular technological matters. One should not wonder, that in terms of startups (however, others as well), the priority should be to produce documentation in a consequent and systemic way. This will allow not only to scale processes, expand solution’s functionalities without troubles, integration with external modules, as well as – which is often forgotten – fluent onboarding. 

There is reason, while in many job offers for developers, an advantage is listed, that the candidate will be dealing with an entirely new product. For many programmers, there is nothing worse, than working on a badly documented code, developed for years – often they are ready to develop software from scratch, rather than learn the concepts developed years before by programmers, with whom there is no contact anymore. This is exactly why the basis for software development process scalability for startups is to document processes in a clear and standardized way. Then, implementations will be more swift, and working in a startup with at least partially developed product will become an advantage and not a flaw. 



Communication and DevOps

Speaking on the subject of onboarding new employees into the project, one cannot omit the issue of communication and entire team organization. At first, team organization in a DevOps model, was, in many organizations, perceived as a typical trend, and at times, was simply implemented badly. Against numerous practices, DevOps does not mean, that each programmer may successfully replace another in his specialization, as if every member of the team would be good at any specialization as any other. 

Something else plays a truly important role here – i.e. a specific release cycle. DevOps teams do not work on subsequent large releases, that appear once in a few months or years, but focus on a systematic work time-frame resulting in regularly presented point releases. In result, users receive new functions on a regular basis, however, it is also important that they do not have to wait long for fixes for irritating bugs. Communication and information exchange are also important – programmers who develop software within a startup should have an overview of the entire situation, and what they colleagues do and how. Just like in a good car workshop – an electrician will not replace a vulcanizer, but is aware of what the other is doing, at what stage he is, and when the repair is to be done.  



Scalable outsourcing model 

An open issue is, what model of software development will respond to the needs related to scalability of a project best, also in terms of organization. Obviously, an important role is played by the capacity and financial abilities of a startup, but that is not all. One of the scenarios is, of course, to build an internal team of DevOps specialists, which will also include an expert on cloud services. However, that is not the only path available. Similar results may be achieved by delegating works to external teams, who will strictly collaborate with the startup’s CTO. In this case, the foundation, on which we should build, would be an agreement that would properly regulate the relations between the startup and the external team, with the Chief Technology Officer playing the role of a mediator. The agreement should, in advance, assume that the scope of the team’s works will be increased or decreased dynamically when needed, as well as, set the work standards in terms of product management and onboarding.  



Summing up

As already mentioned, software development process scalability, is a concept which every startup member should keep in the back of their heads from the very beginning of their involvement in the project. It could seem that scalability should be primarily related to enterprise organization, organization expansion, but they will never come to be without flexible and dynamic software solution development processes. Crisis caused by the pandemic only confirmed, that the only thing that startups may be sure of is the unpredictability of a quickly changing reality. 

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