Agile vs. Waterfall in Software Development: What’s The Best Framework For You?

5/5/2021

Developing software has many moving parts.

What can start as a fascinating project with an energized team can quickly turn sideways. Properly managing the project is imperative.  

Some companies (especially big corporations) use the waterfall model, while others use agile models. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but if you’re wondering which one is better for you, keep reading.

What Is the Waterfall Model in Software Development?

The waterfall model has been one of the most popular models for software development since it first came out back in the 70s. It was Winston W. Royce who first introduced a diagram that could guide software development, describing five distinct steps:

Although Royce clearly stated that this model could be risky because testing waited until the very end, others took the model as a starting point to what later would be known as the waterfall model.

The waterfall model is linear, as you can see from the diagram. One step comes after the other, and every stage has a beginning and an end.

Each company can (and it’s suggested that they do) adapt this model to its own needs, adding steps or requirements to each stage.

Advantages of the Waterfall Model

Many companies are still using the waterfall model because it helps plan what the development process will look like from the very beginning — including deliverables, milestones, and any other detail you think is important to build software.

It relies on the assumption that it’s easier to know the full scope of the project before you start working on it.

If the software you’re building has several components, and everyone’s following the model, then the result tends to be more “cohesive.”

Another advantage is that teams don’t need to be wholly dedicated to one project since everything is supposed to be thoroughly documented.

Disadvantages of the Waterfall Model

The waterfall model relies on having reasonable requirements from the beginning. If they don’t, the final product might not be what was expected.

This is one of the most significant disadvantages of the waterfall model.

If there’s any issue in the beginning that the model didn’t consider or that isn’t solved right away, it’ll snowball, making it very, very difficult to solve it in the end.

Another setback teams can experience is that things might change during development, or new ideas might come up. This model doesn’t offer too much flexibility for iterations, so the final product won’t be easy to change or improve.

Some companies using the waterfall model tend to over-regulate and plan software development, causing many teams to feel micro-managed.

Get help launching your dream startup

The world needs your leadership now more than ever.

Learn More

What Is the Agile Model in Software Development?

The agile software development is iterative, incremental, and team-based. Agile models often require self-organizing teams to cross-function with others in the organization.

The goal of using an agile model is to deliver a software product rapidly with complete functional components. Throughout the development, there’s constant review and evaluation of the product.

Agile methods have been used since the 50s, but in the 90s, they gained more traction, especially when some techniques like Scrum, Unified Process (UP), and Rapid Application Development (RAD) came out.

It wasn’t until 2001 that 17 software developers published the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which combined all these methods into the same model, the agile model.

manifesto for agile software development

Sprints (or timeboxes) are one of the better-known features of agile models. They’re short time frames where small increments of the product are built. During these sprints, all teams involved in software development work together, so in the end, there’s a product they can show and use… and that has minimal bugs!

Agile models require a lot of collaboration and communication. For example, if someone has a question that needs to be answered to keep working on a particular feature, the rest of the team or teams should respond quickly so the development can move forward.

Some of the most popular agile software development practices are:

  • Agile testing: it refers to the importance of testing throughout all the stages of development, as it’s an integral part of developing software
  • Product backlogs: a list of what’s needed in the order it’s needed 
  • Behavior-driven development (BDD): it encourages all parts of the team, including non-technical factors, to collaborate, talk, and define examples of how the application should work
  • Continuous integration (CI): merging the work of developers to a shared mainline daily
  • Daily stand-up/Daily scrum: they’re used to inform every part of the team what everybody’s been working on, what’s stopping them from achieving something in particular, and what are the following goals
  • User story: a description of the features of the application in natural language that is used so developers understand what the customer would expect from the application

Advantages of the Agile Model

One of the reasons many developers and companies prefer to use agile models is to allow for frequent and early updates on the product. The agile model makes it easier to make better decisions and early changes if necessary.

The phrase “fail often and early” comes from this methodology, as it encourages developers to iterate quickly as long as they’re working towards the final goal. It helps teams build software that has gone through more tests, which will work better as a final product.

For startups, using agile methods is a great way to go since they can develop functioning software that they can launch to test, even if it doesn’t have all the features the team was planning from the beginning.

Since it’s easier to develop and test, products using agile models tend to be more user-focused. A huge advantage. 

A lot of startups nowadays use agile models to develop software so many tools are already available to manage projects using these methodologies. For example, our own iSearch.ai was developed for agile teams.

Disadvantages of the Agile Model

One of the most significant disadvantages of transitioning to agile methods is the difficulty of implementing them. It can be time-consuming and expensive.

Additionally, teams trying to implement agile models can face difficulties if other groups are not on board with the methodologies, causing communication problems.

Agile models require a lot of involvement from teams and, often, dedicated ones. This might be a problem for companies with limited resources or those that expect their developers to work on several projects simultaneously.

Since the agile method encourages quick solutions, team members may use quick and easy (often limited) solutions to finish a task in the expected time frame. This is known as technical debt, and, just as any other debt, it can accumulate “interest,” making it more challenging to implement changes.

Working with the agile model requires a lot of focus and continuous work, so it’s easy for developers to burn out.

And finally, it’s entirely possible that the sprints won’t cover all the necessary tasks, and adding more sprints tends to elevate costs.

Agile vs Waterfall

What’s the Best One for You?

As a team, we believe in agile methodologies, especially after our CEO worked at the Human Genome Project and noticed how the waterfall model didn’t help build better software and made it more difficult to communicate between teams!

Using agile methodologies has helped us test our software frequently, which has been crucial to its development. Testing has allowed us to get rid of bugs and learn more about our users and what serves them better.

But, what works for some teams, might not work for others so choosing the right model depends on your goals, your team, and how comfortable you are managing these kinds of projects.

There’s no absolute answer for this.

Of course, many startups have adopted agile models and methodologies to develop their software, but it’s also possible to use hybrid models that give you the best of both worlds.

Finding the right mix between agile and waterfall can help you better manage software development!

You have questions.
We have answers.