Hitch your mobile dev project to a stellar team

By Megan McNamee and Susanne Hupfer

Megan was in Barcelona recently and visited the famous stadium that Lionel Messi, the most valuable footballer in the world, calls home. The popularity and enthusiasm an entire country has for one sports star is truly amazing. Messi is determined to have a value far above his counterparts, but he is the first to say, “I’m lucky to be part of a team who help to make me look good, and they deserve as much credit for my success.”

Messi and his teammates understand teamwork is a more synergistic way of working, where the sum is greater than the parts. Collaboration can maximize strengths by bringing out the best in each individual. By working together, they can achieve the finest product – or game – possible.

How do these lessons apply to the world of mobile app development? The IBM Center for Applied Insights (@IBMCAI) recently conducted a worldwide survey of mobile developers and development managers that revealed key attributes of successful mobile development projects. When we asked what characteristics make a mobile application developer most effective, the answer was surprising. It isn’t deep or broad technical skills in programming languages or platforms. Nor is it experimenting with or anticipating new technologies. The number one trait of effective mobile developers is… drum roll please… the ability to collaborate effectively with non-developers.

So what’s more important for success in the mobile dev arena: A superstar developer, or a strong team that collaborates well? It’s a bit of a trick question because, as in the case of Messi and the Spanish club Barcelona – the answer is both.

Successful mobile development projects – those that met their deadlines, kept to their budgets, and satisfied their key business objectives – are 30 percent more likely to have at least one developer with more than five years of mobile dev experience. That’s a tall order when the majority of mobile developers still have fewer than five years, but putting at least one highly experienced player on the team clearly pays off. A strong team comes into play too. It isn’t the size of the development team that matters, but rather the depth and breadth of expertise. Successful projects are less likely to report that lack of specialized business and industry expertise poses a challenge.

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 12.55.10 PMThe study also found successful projects are more likely to have a close, ongoing collaboration throughout the project between the developers and the expanded team, from mobile interaction designers to QA to business stakeholders and end users.

Susanne recently had the opportunity to discuss the study findings with Brett Wachter, Center Executive for IBM Interactive Experience’s Chicago Studio. Brett’s team is involved in mobile experience design and development for the Apple/IBM partnership. They are responsible for creative solutioning, development and testing for mobile applications.

Brett spoke about the importance of collaboration, an agile approach, and a user-centric focus to mobile development. We also discussed what goes into making strong mobile dev teams.

What characteristics make for a strong mobile dev team?

It is very important to have the right team. From our perspective, the right team is one that is collocated, cross-disciplinary and co-creating. From a collocation standpoint, you need to have them all working within a common, agile-enabling working environment. From a cross-disciplinary standpoint, you need talent ranging from experience design, to development and testing, and often also architecture and infrastructure, to make sure you’re able to actually integrate with the appropriate data necessary to power an experience. When it comes to co-creating, we have a significant focus on having the “sponsor user.” The sponsor user represents the business initiative and industry space the app is intended to address – and works side-by-side with our design and development teams.

Our study found 68 percent of respondents are both coding and managing mobile development. There seems to be a blurring of roles. Does your experience reflect that?

Yes, I would say so. The nature of providing a great mobile user experience dictates the way the team structures end up being put in place. If you try to pack too much functionality into a mobile application that should be focused and purposeful, then it really blows up the user experience to the point where it’s just unwieldy. Instead, you want to streamline an app to do one thing really, really well, and to leverage an agile team to get the best possible app out the door. The whole team gets streamlined and focused as well. You don’t get a tiering of roles in any one project in quite that fashion.

We found successful mobile dev projects are more likely to have at least one developer with more than five years of mobile dev experience – admittedly, a challenge in this relatively young area. Do you try to find a senior mobile developer like that?

You do try. The technology in this space moves fast enough that you can’t necessarily always find somebody with the specific expertise in the most recent technology.

What you can do, however, is find seasoned and mature architects who have worked on other platforms and in particular have done a significant amount of integration work. Those people can then help make sure the appropriate development practices are put in place for the team while they either contribute to the actual application development, or focus on the application integration efforts. For example, they can make sure you’re getting the right financial data or customer data to the application. Once we have that foundational leadership in place, we have ample means of training the team based on their core skills in the space.

Besides having the right mobile development experience in place, how important is it to have deep industry experience and business experience on the team?

You need to have the business sponsor and the sponsor user who are part of that team as well. And they and the developers work their way through the overall list of features and functionality required for the mobile experience in an agile and iterative way together – the co-creation I mentioned earlier. That’s going to produce the most effective outcome in the fastest period of time.

What traits do you look for in a mobile developer?

 The real key there is to find people who are more hybrid. They bring not only the development skill sets, but also have a sort of intuitive perspective around experience design and what makes for a strong, strong experience.

You’re going to move developers around so much, from one industry to the next and from one type of

application to the next, that finding somebody who has expertise in a particular industry is usually less important than finding somebody who has a strong perspective on what makes for a great user experience. What I typically look for is someone who not only has the ability to bang out a bunch of lines of code, but also can bring some perspective to just how strong the visual and information representation of the user experience turns out to be — a “creative technologist.”

Our study respondents don’t consider development expertise to be the top trait of effective developers. It’s the ability to collaborate with non-developers. Do you agree?

Yes. Development expertise is kind of a given. But development talent without the ability to work within the collaborative team is not going to get very far. That’s where the rubber meets the road in a successful project.

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