3 Tips for Aligning Your Software and Hardware Development Efforts

Written by: Hanna Taller

Read Time: 6 min

The global market of software-driven product systems is growing at a staggering pace. This is in part due to manufacturing automation, widespread adoption of the Internet of Things, and an ever-growing demand for portable computing devices. Companies looking to stay a step ahead of trends are integrating their software and hardware development efforts to deliver quality integrated systems. This can be challenging due to different approaches and mindsets.

Companies that specialize in digital product delivery are under more pressure than ever to create software-driven products and bring them to market as quickly as possible. More products are considered system-of-systems products with mechanical, electronic, and software components. As a result, many organizations are now looking for ways to align and integrate their hardware and software development efforts. Why take on the challenge? Simply put, it's to balance time to market and customer experience with the most optimized development processes and highest quality end products possible. 

Of course, it’s always easier said than done. Many companies on this path will find that there is still a significant gap between the two product development methodological approaches, and perhaps even more importantly, their mindsets. Despite the inherent challenges of bringing the two together, it’s worth it, especially for creating complex digital products. Hardware and software design should not happen in isolation because they inevitably impact each other. Working in silos can cause serious problems in terms of overspending, resource allocation, meeting deadlines, and ultimately, the overall product quality and level of customer satisfaction.

Since repeating tests and reproducing faulty hardware ends up having a much higher cost and slowing down go-to-market time, it’s better for hardware and software teams to be on the same page from the start – and to get the communication right. Let’s start by breaking down the key differences between hardware and software development before we dive into best practices for aligning the two disciplines in your organization. 

Key differences between hardware and software development 

Of course, there are many differences between the ways hardware and software are developed in businesses, but there are some recurring themes that tend to be the most important.

Time to market 

Time to market is often a make-it-or-break-it factor when it comes to a new product’s chances of success. This is one of the areas where software and hardware development differ the most. Since software applications can be created within a relatively short period and (at least when you’re working Agile, which is more and more popular) the development process is broken down into bite-sized chunks with iterations happening every couple of weeks, new software can be put out fairly quickly.

Creating a new piece of hardware, however, can take up to three to six months depending on the complexity of the product and its required functionality. On top of that, hardware product updates can take up to as much as eight weeks due to the time it takes to manufacture, test, collect feedback, figure out issues, and fix them in the new version before sending the piece out for testing again. 

As a result, it becomes difficult to keep both processes on track with each other given very different timelines, and if software is waiting on hardware for example, it can create significant testing delays. 

Project management 

Generally speaking, project management tends to be a bit more complicated for hardware product managers than those specializing in software. Or at the very least, the domain comes with more responsibilities. This is due to the fact that on top of software, the hardware product engineer has to worry about things like: 

  • Electronics engineering 
  • Mechanical engineering 
  • Product Assembly 
  • Packing 
  • Shipping

While software teams tend to use the V-model or Agile methodologies for developing applications, hardware teams still often use a Waterfall approach for working even if their products contain embedded software systems. This leads to more rigid plans, a higher dependency between development steps, and increased R&D spending due to the length and cost of iterations. Trying to get both types of teams to work in an Agile manner can be challenging, but it is possible with a good deal of organization, supportive tooling, and a significant mindset shift. 

Resources needed 

Balancing cash flow and necessary resources is also a more complex task for hardware teams and businesses. Deadstock, for example, (also known as items that won't be used or sold) is not something software teams usually need to be concerned about. Software development teams essentially need to consider the cost of their team resources and marketing operations but have very little stock issues, while hardware product teams need to think about all of those in addition to production cost, stocking, and dead or defective stock. 

Advantages of aligning the two disciplines 

With all the differences between hardware and software development approaches laid out, it’s no wonder some organizations consider them too disparate to merge or integrate. That being said, keeping them apart isn’t an option either: as software is becoming an increasingly integral part of product systems, skyrocketing product complexity necessitates that you integrate the delivery streams of all product components. 

There are significant advantages to integrating your hardware and software development efforts. First, you’ll be able to leverage both teams’ knowledge and expertise to come up with the best solutions and products possible. This diversity of opinion, background, and mindset can also help you avoid tunnel vision and come up with viable alternative troubleshooting ideas that might not otherwise have been suggested. 

Second, having both teams on the same page helps to avoid inconsistencies and misunderstandings which typically lead to costly reworks and delays. Finally, and most importantly, you should have a higher quality product that meets customer needs better and was brought to market with fewer delays since less time is needed to be spent on fixing mistakes. 

Tips for integrating software and hardware development 

Designate a project manager 

This is one of the most important functions when it comes to integrating software and hardware development but is often overlooked or treated as an afterthought. As a result, it’s typically handled by someone who is not as familiar with interdisciplinary collaboration as is needed.

We recommend that you assign this coordination to someone who is committed to taking an active role in overseeing changes and following organizational guidelines for collaboration. This way, it won’t be assigned to someone as a side task who won’t even have time for it. It’s best to choose someone with experience in multiple areas of expertise, who is also well-known and respected in the company. 

Collaborate from the beginning 

It is very common for companies to decouple hardware and software development efforts; however, this generally leads to significant inconsistencies and a lack of communication across the board. In order to align both teams' efforts and get them on the same page, collaboration needs to be encouraged from the start, ideally right from the conception phase of the product. 

Leverage the right tooling 

Having the right kind of tools at your disposal can make a huge difference when it comes to collaborating effectively. This is down to the fact that an integrated project management suite will allow you to combine backlogs and work in parallel. It also provides the level of transparency and visibility you need in order to track interdisciplinary projects as well as changes that affect both teams significantly. Being able to see what has a knock-on effect on what and keeping open lines of communication throughout the project lifecycle is vital to avoiding inconsistencies and costly reworks. 

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Tags: Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) Codebeamer Agile Software Development

About the Author

Hanna Taller

Hanna Taller is a content creator for PTC’s ALM Marketing team. She is responsible for increasing brand awareness and driving thought leadership for Codebeamer. Hanna is passionate about creating insightful content centered around ALM, life sciences, automotive technology, and avionics.