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What Is SDLC, and How Can It Work for You?

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The IT industry is awash in acronyms.

Even the name of the industry itself is an acronym. What does Information Technology even mean, really?

But I digress. Let’s get to the real reason you’re here.

The acronym we’re demystifying today is SDLC, or the Software Development Life Cycle. We’ll take a look at the phases that make up the SDLC, and then we’ll go over some popular methodologies your team can use to get through every phase.

So…what is SDLC?

If you’re in software development, you probably refer to the SDLC every day, whether you realize it or not.

What is SDLC

Pat yourself on the back, expert engineer

SDLC is, at its core, a methodology for creating a checklist for software development projects. It details all the phases you must go through to—you guessed it—develop software (or apps, or any sort of technological system).

As I said before, if you develop software, you’ve encountered SDLC. You probably go through its various phases naturally every time you work on a project.

If I pressed you, I bet you could name all these phases by yourself. But take it easy for once and let me do the heavy lifting here.

What are the phases of the software development life cycle?

Every project, including software development projects, must have different phases. You might not go through them in the exact order they’re listed in here, but you likely have to go through each of these phases to finish any project to satisfaction.

Planning

This is the part of every project that I, personally, get stuck in. Because it’s fun to make outlines or generate ideas you’re probably never going to use instead of doing the actual work!

What is SDLC

Me when I’m thinking of a totally useless idea

For software development projects, the planning phase includes gathering requirements, such as: what exactly the system should accomplish, your deadline, when you think you’ll be able to finish, your total budget, and the resources you’ll need.

Then you have to review those requirements to determine what’s doable. Once you have your list of requirements, you can create your next actionable steps to meet each of them.

For example, say your client has a hard deadline for when they need a finished product. You don’t have enough team members to finish on time, so you’ll need to hire a freelancer. That’ll have to come out of your budget, meaning you’ll have less money to spend in other areas.

Your next actionable items might look like this:

  • Reallocate funding for a freelancer (or ask for more money from your client)
  • Write and a post job description, or reach out to reliable freelancers you’ve worked with before
  • Balance the team’s workload with the new freelancer in mind.

The planning phase also includes assigning tasks and determining or negotiating a timeline for when a project should be completed.

To do that, you can create a scope document to determine your team’s workload, when you’ll be busiest, and what resources you’ll need.

If you’re working on a larger team, your more experienced engineers will probably take the lead in the planning phase, delegating tasks and helping to determine timelines, unless you have a dedicated project manager.

If you’re a team of one, you’re in charge of all the planning and you get to complete all of the tasks you’ve just created. If that thought scares you, check out this helpful slideshare that documents one lone wolf developer and how he improved his process. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed as a one-man task force, check out this subreddit of successful one-man development efforts.

Why this phase is important

We’ll discuss whether you should emphasize or de-emphasize planning later on in our methodologies section. But planning, at the very least, is the part where you determine your end goal. Maybe you only have a vague idea of what your final product will be, but if you start your development process without knowing what you’re building, you’re bound to spend lots of time rebuilding unnecessary pieces.

Defining

The defining phase of SDLC is the point at which you take all of your approved requirements and document them. (Documentation will be an ongoing, recurring phase of SDLC. You should document everything you do, so you know what you did, how you did it, and when you did it.)

Defining is a buffer phase between gathering requirements and acting on them. It helps your team ensure they’re on the right track before they start working on the project.

What is SDLC

The question you should always ask yourself before moving on to your design phase

In this phase, you should get approval or clarification from clients about when certain parts of your project need to be completed. If you’ve already drawn up a rough timeline in the planning phase, you can present this to your client to show them what your team can do realistically in a certain time frame.

Why this phase is important

Spending some time defining and clarifying can save you some giant headaches in the future. You don’t need to spend too much time on this phase, but you can think of it as getting the green light for your project.

Designing

Designing is the planning phase for the technical aspects of your project. You know all the requirements, so here, you can get to work thinking about what they might look like from a development and UI perspective.

What is SDLC

You’re looking at everything, duh!

The design phase should include specifications as broad as how team members will communicate during the project (i.e., what your process looks like) and as specific as the internal design of the software (i.e., how the finished project is coded, etc.).

Once you’ve got a basic outline of your new software—or a goal to shoot for with your finished product—you can get started on the fun stuff: actually building your system.

Why this phase is important

Continuing my driving metaphor from the previous section, you’ve gotten the green light, and now you need a road map. The designing phase ensures that everyone on your team knows where they’re going and how they’re going to get there.

Building

The building phase is the part where you do all the work you’ve talked about for so long in all the other phases.

What is SDLC

You getting down to business

With all the pieces, such as your requirements and approved design ideas, you now get to put something together that’s usable and does what it needs to do. Go you!

This is also the most difficult phase of any development project, since it’s the part where you have to put all of your ideas to the test.

If you’re like me, it’s also the part where you can get easily distracted and think of 10 million other things you could add to your final product that would be super cool. This is where all of your planning and designing comes in handy because it gives you guidelines to follow. Your task is due Tuesday, so you don’t have time to add three other features to your app? Good to know—time to get back to work.

Why this phase is important

Well, duh, this is where you get to test your thoughts and make something functional. It’s also the fun part of your project where you can solve any problems that arise or innovate with your team to come up with something totally unique.

Testing

Does what you’ve built actually work? That’s a question your team should constantly ask throughout your development process.

If you deliver software to a client that’s buggy or doesn’t do what the original requirements specified, that’s no good for anyone.

Test each component of your system to make sure that all the individual moving parts work by themselves and, as you build out the system, that they all work together as part of a larger whole.

What is SDLC

Gotta go through all the hypotheticals when testing

Why this phase is important

Testing is an ongoing process and can occur as early as the designing phase and continue on through maintenance. While the building phase lets you create pieces and put them together, the testing phase is the part where you show that they work. Without testing, you might have created totally useless or really buggy software. And that probably means you won’t get paid for any of your hard work.

Deployment

Ta da! You’re ready to launch!

You did it! You tested your prototypes, and you can present, well, something to your client.

What is SDLC

How you feel when you’ve finished a project

Deployment can happen in stages, where you release only the parts of your product that are ready and workable. You can also deploy a beta version and limit access to select testers to get feedback and make improvements before releasing the full product to a wider population.

Why this phase is important

This is the part where your final product meets real-world use! At this point, you and your team have looked at this system for so long that you don’t understand what it’s like to interact with it for the first time. People who will use the system every day can provide you with honest feedback about whether you’ve built a high-quality product or whether there’s room for improvement.

Maintenance

It’s important to note that your job as a software developer doesn’t end after the final deadline or after the product launches.

What is SDLC

This is your life now

Maintenance is a never-ending process of updating your system periodically, improving it for more efficient use, and fixing bugs as they occur.

If you’ve built software for a client, make sure the terms of system maintenance are well defined. Will you receive payment for maintaining the system, or is maintenance included? Is the client’s tech team in charge of implementing updates? Can the client call you at 2 a.m. if the system isn’t working?

Since maintenance is part of the life cycle of software development, these are all necessary considerations before signing on to a project.

Why this phase is important

Without maintenance, you won’t improve or update your product. And without improvements or updates, your product will deteriorate over time. And your reputation as a developer will deteriorate right along with it. Maintaining your products to the best of your ability lets people know that you’re serious about quality and always strive for the best possible product.

How should you move your project through the SDLC?

So now you understand each of the phases of the software development life cycle. But when do you go through each of these phases? Is there a correct order?

Below, we’ll look at some of the most common project management methods for software development.

This list of project management styles is by no means comprehensive. The “best” one is whichever method works well for your team and helps you create a great product on time and within budget.

Experiment to see which of these methods work best for you. Or, heck, come up with your own version. The world is your oyster! You’re in charge of your own destiny!

Agile

Agile software development has many different iterations. But at its core, it relies on the idea that plans change, so you should always be prepared to throw one idea out the window and go with another one.

You might be saying to yourself, “Doesn’t this negate the whole idea of SDLC? Have I wasted my time reading this whole dumb article?”

To which I say, “Nope!”

As I mentioned previously, SDLC is like a checklist for your development project as a whole. The Agile methodology de-emphasizes the planning and design stages of your project and places more importance on building and testing your system.

That doesn’t mean that you throw planning out the window entirely. It just means that you spend less time discussing what you want from a system and more time building the system you want.

However, the Agile methodology relies on constant collaboration and communication, both within your team and with your clients.

What is SDLC

Agile at work

Constant check-ins, such as scrum meetings, ensure that your team is revisiting your plan every day and that, while you’re all in the building and testing phases, your project is still on track.

Check in with your client frequently to make sure that your working prototypes meet their expectations and different points your project. Check in with your team to see where they are with their tasks and adjust your schedule (and expectations) accordingly if you find that you’re falling behind.

Advantages of Agile

  • Encourages and necessitates communication and collaboration
  • Ensures you’re continuously delivering improved software to your client
  • Provides room for ongoing improvements and tweaks to create the best possible working product
  • Allows for deviation from rigid project schedules and guidelines

Disadvantages of Agile

  • Lack of a rigid plan might cause the project to go past deadline
  • De-emphasis on planning can result in an unclear path to a finished product

Waterfall

The Waterfall methodology is nearly the exact opposite of the Agile methodology. There’s a huge emphasis on planning and design before you even start building out your software.

In Waterfall mode, you follow a rigidly structured plan and timeline. Whereas in Agile, you can move through phases very fluidly, producing a design plan for one feature while coding another, in Waterfall you can only move on to Step B after completing Step A.

What is SDLC

What your manager says after you’ve finished Step A!

In this case, you’d go through the phases of SDLC in largely the same order as I’ve listed them, rarely moving to a phase out of order.

Advantages of Waterfall

  • Everyone knows which phase a project is in at all times
  • Easier to plan a more concrete timeline when moving through phases sequentially
  • Provides rigid structure for teams to follow
  • Emphasis on documentation means another team member can pick up the slack if someone leaves the project or goes on vacation

Disadvantages of Waterfall

  • Doesn’t allow for deviation from an accepted plan, such as project delays
  • Offers less flexibility for making changes to your final product if you adjust a requirement during the building phase

Big Bang

There are many variations of both Waterfall and Agile methodologies. But there are even more variations on the Big Bang methodology.

That’s because the Big Bang methodology basically means having no plan.

What is SDLC

Anything goes with the Big Bang methodology

The Big Bang methodology encourages focusing on the amount of money and manpower you start with and using that to gauge what you can possibly create with those resources.

So, for example, you might start with a basic idea of what you or your customer wants as a finished product. And after that, you get to work!

With Big Bang, your planning, defining, and designing phases are basically limited to determining a budget and, if your client knows what they want, what the product is supposed to accomplish.

You might build the product out in increments and present parts to your client, as with Agile. Or you might just try to build a final product and only get back to your client when it’s ready.

Big Bang is a figure-it-out-as-you-go kind of methodology. You can run through the phases of SDLC in whatever order you want and spend as much time on each phase as you have available. But at the end of the day, a good software product has gone through all of the SDLC phases, no matter what order they’re completed in.

Advantages of Big Bang

  • No need to follow the rules!
  • Works with smaller projects that might not need lots of planning

Disadvantages of Big Bang

More tools for your software development projects

Now that you know what SDLC is and have considered a few ways to move your project through the cycle, you should check out a few of these other resources about software development.

Let’s hear from the developers!

For those of you who have been through the phases of SDLC, where did you come up against the most difficult challengers? What’s your favorite part of development projects? What’s your preferred project management methodology?

Let me know in the comments!

Looking for IT Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best IT Management software solutions.

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About the Author

Kelsie Anderson

Kelsie is a writer and researcher for Capterra. She has a background in English and French literature, so she can read pretty good. When she's not reading and writing about software trends, she enjoys reading about literally anything else, dabbling in comedic pursuits, and settling Catan.

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