Software as an Iterative Process

The world can broadly be divided into the physical world and the digital world.

In the physical world, products are manufactured and deployed. Those products never again see the manufacturer. If there is a problem, a new process may be implemented to solve the problem; but customers with the existing product will not likely see the benefit of the new process.

In the digital world, products are created and deployed just like in the physical world. However, everything that follows is different. When software problems are identified, patches are created or new versions are deployed. When the customer accesses the patches or upgrades their software, they see the benefit of the new changes.

This difference allows for a vastly different approach to creating and deploying products in the digital world. Unlike physical products, software can benefit from an iterative process. Software can be modified today, tested tomorrow, and deployed the following day. What if it doesn’t work? The changes can be rolled back or a new patch can be deployed. Unlike a physical product, a digital product is never complete.

This huge paradigm difference means that software companies can be far more nimble than manufacturing companies. Since changes can be made at any time, software companies enjoy far less risk than manufacturing companies.

As a developer of custom software, I often work with customers that are uncomfortable with this process. These customers want to wait until all functionality is present or until everything is fully polished and tested. This makes sense in the physical world, but can actually be detrimental in the software world.

Why is it important to use an iterative approach to software development? Since deploying software can be done quickly and changes can be rapidly fixed if necessary, frequent software releases allow customers to receive updates more quickly than if they waited for a major release. This allows customers to provide feedback if the features are not useful or if they work improperly. This feedback creates a loop that allows developers to go back and ‘get it right’ if they need to in a more controlled environment. Without this loop, it’s possible to spend months developing features that don’t actually meet user requirements or to create bugs that require substantial cost to find and rectify. This means wasted development time as well as missed opportunity costs. Additionally, small frequent software updates means that each individual update can be tested independent of other changes and issues are kept much smaller than in large updates. Frequent software updates also means a decreased time-to-market with new features.

Iterative approaches to software improve user experience, improve time-to-market, decrease difficult to find bugs, and shorten and simplify test cycles. Are you frequently releasing software updates, or are you treating software like it’s a physical commodity?

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