Curated by: Sergio A. Martínez
When you’re cooking up a new software application, it’s important to think about the future. We have talked before about measures like futureproofing, refactoring, and how to deal with technical debt to maintain an application in the long run, but let’s look today beyond the product, and think instead about the team in charge of helping it become a reality. And “the Bus Factor” is key in all of this.
What does “Bus Factor” mean?
Chances are you won’t be the only one working on the project; at some point, someone will need to pick up where you left off. It happens all the time, as it is not very realistic to expect that the same people that build a piece of software will be around forever to take care of it when the need arises.
That’s why it’s important to have a robust risk assessment approach to development, identifying anything that could jeopardize the success of a project. This includes both technical risks, such as the possibility of errors in the code, and non-technical risks, such as changes in market conditions. Risk assessment is an important part of project management, helping to identify potential problems early on and develop plans to mitigate them. There are several different methods for conducting a risk assessment, but all involve breaking down the project into its component parts and evaluating each one for risks.
And when it comes to assessing risk in software development, the Bus Factor is an important consideration to ensure a project not only gets finished but also can be trusted to work in the long run. Simply put, this factor indicates the number of people who would need to be proverbially “hit by a bus” before a software project would be severely impacted and stall. If your Bus Factor is 3, for example, that means that losing 3 people is all you need for the project to fail, so measures to bring that number up become necessary to guarantee a good outcome in development.
As a result, it’s essential to pay attention to the configuration of a team when developing software. By ensuring that team members are aware of the codebase, that collaboration is encouraged, and that everyone is on the same page, you can help to reduce the risk of potential problems down the line.
A bus is always around the corner
So, with proper risk assessment, software development projects can be more successful and less likely to encounter unforeseen problems. That’s why it’s important to increase your Bus Factor; if too few people know how the code works, if the tasks are too partitioned, or if there’s no good collaboration between team members, then the project is at risk. A low Bus Factor can lead to problems when people leave the team, get sick, or are otherwise unavailable, bus involved or not.
“Losing key people during development can be devastating. They can take with them valuable knowledge and expertise that can be difficult to replace, as well as disrupting the workflow and causing delays”, says Adolfo Cruz, PMO Director and Partner at Scio. “However, the worst part of losing key personnel is the impact it can have on morale. When experienced and talented individuals leave, it can be demoralizing for those who remain and damage an organization’s ability to attract new talent. It’s a ripple effect that extends far beyond the immediate impact on the project.”
So, when it comes to increasing your Bus Factor, there are two sides to take into consideration. The first one, the technical part, is simple enough: losing people can make it difficult to make changes to the codebase, since there may be no one who understands how it all fits together, and some good practices in project management are important to reduce this risk as much as possible. For example:
- Use comments liberally. Some programmers believe that comments are essential, while others feel that they only clutter up the code. After all, well-written code should be self-evident, and easy to understand, but in a complex project with many people involved, it never hurts to explain what the code is doing and why. If you need to bring someone entirely new to the project you can easily waste time trying to reverse-engineer some vital functions of the application. So even if the code looks obvious, leaving comments just to be sure it can be understood in the future goes a long way toward ensuring a project can be maintained properly.
- Write clear and concise documentation. On the same token, this will help others understand the design decisions behind your code. Without clear and concise documentation, it can be difficult to keep track of the various code dependencies and file hierarchies, essential for ensuring that the project runs smoothly. In addition, documentation can be extremely helpful when it comes to debugging (which may not be done by the exact same team that wrote the code), aiding to pinpoint the root cause of a problem more quickly.
- Hold regular team meetings. The Agile methodologies in software development have done wonders for team collaboration, offering a way to keep everyone up to date on the project’s progress and ensuring that everyone is on the same page. Additionally, by keeping everyone in the loop, points of failure can be identified before they become a problem for the project, making regular meetings with the team a must for a well-managed development cycle.
By taking these steps, you can help increase your Bus Factor and make it easier for others to step in and continue working on your project if something happens to a key member of the development team. Nevertheless, the challenges of maintaining a project can go beyond the product itself, and with the way development works today, a different approach might be needed.
What happens when the bus is in another country?
Software development is a notoriously challenging field, and one of the biggest changes we are currently living through is the normalization of remote teams, an increasingly likely outcome in a post-pandemic world where the advantages of having a hybrid approach and collaborating with external people, have become clear.
However, how does the Bus Factor come into play when your team is distributed over a wide geographical area? With so many options in outsourcing or hiring freelancer developers to collaborate on a given project, management has an increasing challenge in keeping everyone looking in the same direction and minimizing any risk involved in not having direct contact with a team. The challenge is that software development often requires very specific skills to carry through, from programming languages to types of technology being worked on, and the Bus Factor gets lower as more variables are involved in development.
“The complexity of a project isn’t necessarily the biggest problem contributing to your Bus Factor; that dubious honor goes to the subject’s specificity. The more specific your topic, the worse your bus factor will be. More specifically, if all other factors remain constant, your bus factor will decrease proportionately to how much specific expertise is required to carry out your work”, explains the blog “How to Beat the Bus Factor (and Be Prepared for Anything)” published by the workflow management company Process. st.
This is especially true when a project requires very specific skills that are hard to find. For an extreme example, imagine you’re working on a project requiring knowledge of a particular software library that only a handful of people know how to use. In such a case, it can be nearly impossible to find someone with the necessary skill set, and in case you do, how do you ensure that person not only remains during the entirety of development but also can come back and help if something goes wrong? Or leaves enough documentation behind so other people in the team can continue? If those questions are a concern, a different approach may be needed.
“As the benefits of Nearshore collaboration become more widely recognized, even more businesses will likely choose to partner with developers in Mexico and Latin America”, says Luis Aburto, CEO, and Co-Founder of Scio. “There are many reasons for this trend, but one of the most important is the increased collaboration that Nearshore development enables, letting developers in nearby time zones to integrate easily to a specific project.”
The option of Nearshore is attractive if an organization is looking to increase its Bus Factor, guaranteeing a positive outcome in the development cycle. You may have heard of Nearshore companies before, easily confused with mere outsourcing at first glance, but unlike trusting development to an external team (often in faraway locations such as India or China), the Nearshore model offers many benefits, including shorter project timelines, competitive costs, and reduced risks within the same time zone, allowing for a smoother collaboration no matter where in LATAM is the talent you want.
In the case of Scio, we offer teams of skilled and experienced developers working together, putting collaboration and knowledge-sharing as some of our core tenets. This way, some of the common approaches to increasing the Bus Factor (like cross-training developers in a multitude of skill sets, empowering developers to grow and take on more challenges, implementing Agile methodologies, encouraging close communication at every level, and generally fostering a culture of collaboration and team-focused mindsets) are endemic to Scio, where not only we ensure any onboarding process in a new project is as seamless as possible, but also that everyone is continually learning and growing with new skills, offering knowledge and insight at every turn. In the rare cases, the Bus Factor comes into play, have ready-to-go measures to minimize its impact.
In short, the Bus Factor is an important part of risk assessment in every software development project, and increasing it as much as possible is always the best policy. So next time you or your company is looking into bringing talent to a team to complete a project, think of the best options out there to manage this risk as best as you can.
The Key Takeaways
- Risk assessment is important for every software development cycle, and the Bus Factor is one of the most critical metrics to watch out for.
- In short, the Bus Factor is the number of people that can leave a project before it stalls completely, leading to negative outcomes for development.
- Good practices can be implemented (like a commenting discipline, through documentation, and having consistent meetings to keep everyone in the loop) can increase the Bus Factor in any project.
- However, when it comes to working with remote or distributed teams, the Bus Factor can increase depending on the approach of this collaboration.
- Nearshore development can offer a solution, with organizations like Scio offering the support and culture necessary to ensure collaboration is a success, and a positive outcome can be reached for the project.
Scio is an established Nearshore software development company based in Mexico that specializes in providing high-quality, cost-effective technologies for pioneering tech companies. We have been building and mentoring teams of engineers since 2003 and our experience gives us access not only to the knowledge but also the expertise needed when tackling any project. Get started today by contacting us about your project needs – We have teams available to help you achieve your business goals. Get in contact today!