Agile vs. Waterfall Development

By: Nikki Dent

When it comes to software development, there are many different procedures or value systems that can be followed or drawn upon for workflow. Two development philosophies that are often talked about and compared are agile and Waterfall. In a way, they are two sides of the same coin, Waterfall is slower and methodical while agile is faster-paced and nimble. Depending on your project and your organization there are pros and cons to each method. Choosing the one that best aligns with your company’s goals and work mentality will give you the best outcome and the smoothest development process.  

What is Waterfall?

Waterfall is also known as a “traditional” development method and is very linear and sequential. In a Waterfall project, requirements are extensively gathered at the beginning of a project and then each stage of development is fully completed before you move on to the next stage. Typically, once you begin a new stage, you also can’t move backward to a past stage without going all the way back to the beginning.  

Diagram of the stages of waterfall development

With such a linear structure, following the Waterfall methodology is easy. It’s clear when each step is completed and the whole team knows what to work on next. It also provides clear deliverables to stakeholders along the way. The nature of the framework also necessitates a high level of documentation, which can be a huge pro. When you hit the end of the project, there will be documentation of all the work completed and the logic used which can be helpful in future maintenance of the software. 

With so much focus at the beginning of the project on requirements gathering, it becomes easy to project timelines and to set deadlines. However, it can often be difficult to know all the requirements at the onset of a project and that can make compiling a full requirements list challenging. Likely the biggest drawback of Waterfall is that it doesn’t easily accommodate change, and change is almost an inevitable part of software development. For example, if midway through a project you think of a new requirement, or if user feedback prompts a change to a feature, there is no easy way to make those changes without going back to the planning stage.

What Is Agile?

Agile software development is a thought process that believes in iterative development, which allows for learning as you go through a project. It forgoes in-depth planning at the beginning to remain nimble so changes can be made based on user feedback. Agile ideas are typically combined with a framework like Scrum, to help put them into practice. 

Agile was conceived by a group of software developers in 2001, who met to rethink development methods. Together they wrote The Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which comprises of 4 rules and 12 principles describing how to work with more agility.

Diagram of an agile development workflow

Working in an agile way has many benefits. A big advantage is how an agile mindset embraces change and the unknown. Unlike in Waterfall where all the requirements need to be written out upfront, agile thinking is okay with leaving the end goal of the project unknown and letting the software be fleshed out as you go. Instead of placing all your value in following a plan or rigidly fulfilling requirements, agile thought promotes using incremental releases to validate the purpose of the software and even to continually increase value based on customer feedback. These smaller iterations also make it possible to get high quality work done, quickly. As developers work on small pieces of software, they have the time and focus to make sure each piece is tested and that any bugs are fixed right away.

Following an agile mindset requires a knowledgeable team that’s ideally committed to the project for the duration. Where in a Waterfall project the extensive amount of documentation means that developers can be switched out mid-project, agile-style projects utilize less documentation, relying instead on the knowledge and expertise of the developers to make good value judgements. This knowledge is continually accumulated as they work on the project with the rest of the team. If your teams shift around frequently and you don’t think that you can commit to keeping the same developers on one project, then working in an agile way might not be a good fit. Additionally, with the propensity for change throughout agile-style projects, sometimes the finished product can look very different than the original idea, which could be considered a drawback, but hopefully these changes have led to a better end result.

Which Is Right for You?

All in all, Waterfall is a more rigid development plan, where agile thought believes in a flexible series of iterations and repetition. Waterfall development is best suited to projects where all aspects of the project are known upfront or in situations where you don’t have any flexibility in the requirements. However, in most custom software projects, more of the project is unknown that known at the onset, and it’s in those situations where an agile mindset shines.  Therefore, we feel that working in an agile way is the best route for the majority of custom software projects.

There’s no right or wrong way to work and, at the end of the day, whichever method you choose it should be one that will help you and your team come out at the end with good, working software for your customers.

If you want to learn more about agile development or if you’d like to work with an agile team on your next software project, let’s have a conversation.

Run Your Next Project with an Agile Mindset

Embrace change and iterative design when you work with an agile team. Talk to our team today to see how running an agile project with Aptera could improve your business.

Nikki Dent

About Nikki Dent

Nikki is a technical copywriter for Aptera. With a bachelor’s degree in writing from Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Ind., she has been honing her craft of marketing copywriting for the past six years. In her role at Aptera, Nikki enjoys learning and writing about the technology and strategy at work across the company.