Lessons learned from project hand offs

Over the years I have started many project and handed them off to others both successfully and unsuccessfully. Now as developers we develop and document our code/project as though we are going to get hit by a bus, meteor, or falling piano the next day. Then we are shocked when another person looks at our code/documentation and can’t successfully pick up where you left off.  This weekend I performed a retrospective on my projects over the years and made a list of the following best practices.

Don’t expect the person owning your code to be like you.

I once had a developer tell me that his documentation is only meant to be a memory reference for him. This is obviously a bad practice however in many respects we document less for things we think is obvious. For instance I may write java code that will be handed off to another Java developer. Now I am a Test Driven Developer and utilize the JUnit library to verify all of my code. Now just because the developer accepting my code knows Java does not mean that he/she knows JUnit. So I may have each test case very well documented but that doesn’t mean the new developer knows how to run them.

I recently watched an interview with Alton Brown about writing a recipe. He recommended against documenting everything. He tried to document how to make a soufflé for aliens and gave up after 20 pages.  There needs to be context or shared experience for this to be feasible. He takes an interesting approach by applying cartography techniques to recipe writing.

Give the person a top 10 list

Just because the person will receiving responsibility for your project doesn’t mean they can absorb 8 months of knowledge in a week. Provide them a Top 10 list to keep the lights running for the project. It is also important to footnote this list with what is not included and would require deep knowledge. I once had a developer maintain a project with only that list only to have the project explode 5 months down the line. There needs to be an understanding that the list will not solve everything.

Give the person a fool proof work environment

Everyone’s development environment is different and a huge amount of time can be wasted trying to get your project working in their environment.

Get more than simple sign off

Most project management documentation emphasize the importance of obtaining sign-off from the other person before the hand off is complete. In my experience developers sign off on accepting projects like people accept iTunes EULAs. There needs to be more involved in accepting a sign off.

One technique I have done over the past few years is to give the new developer homework. If the developer can make an enhancement or fix a core defect then they know the code well enough. Performing a code review of their change doesn’t hurt either.

Go on vacation

There should be a sense of urgency to encourage the developer to take ownership. They do not need to be that self reliant if you are always reachable. I like to set a deadline where I will not be available. Now I should mention that you shouldn’t hand off a project and then go immediately on vacation.


Handing off a project to another person will force you to write better code and documentation. The best advice I can give is to have a backup person and hand-off code often. Some teams have adopted a process of handing off code every day (http://www.technologyreview.com/news/423451/making-smart-handoffs/).


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