Academics and practitioners, having rather different goals in life, tend to approach software development in quite different ways. No doubt there are many things each side of the fence can learn from the other, but I think academics in particular could often benefit quite a lot by adopting some of the practices used in industrial development. And not just computer science academics!
A common misconception is that these techniques only are useful with large projects and large teams. I find, though, that they can help reduce much of the growth pains even in small projects, helping them reach maturity much faster.
Use version control. Classical, but invalid, counter arguments include “it’s a hassle and too much work to set up”, or “there’s only one person working on this project anyway”. Even if it’s only you, you will benefit massively from being able to undo your changes far back in time. It will let you experiment safely. Plus, setup is no longer an issue with free and easy-to-use services like github and bitbucket. My tool of choice is now Mercurial, and I used to use SVN. And there are many other good choices.
Use a debugger. If there is a debugger available for your language, and there most certainly is, then you should use it to find nontrivial errors, rather than extensive printf style testing.
Don’t optimise prematurely, but when you need to, use a profiler. Profilers tell you where a program’s performance bottlenecks are. You can profile things like heap usage (what classes use most space in Java, for instance) and CPU usage (which functions use the most CPU time). For Java, I’ve discovered that the NetBeans IDE has a very good built in profiler. Eclipse also has one, but it didn’t work on Mac last time I checked. For C/C++, GProf used to be good and probably still is.
Use unit testing wisely. All of the above apply even to very small projects, but I think some projects are too small to need unit tests, at least initially. You be the judge. I find that unit tests can have a lot of benefit when applied to the fragile, complicated parts of a system, where many different things interlock. If you are ambitious you can also write tests first and code later — test driven development.
Use a good IDE if you can. For a language like Java, where you have to type a lot of code to get something done and spread out your code across lots of files, a good IDE that can generate boilerplate code and navigate quickly can really speed up your work. It’s beneficial for other languages too. But I have no problem with people who use pure vim or emacs, after all these are practically IDEs.
I believe that honing your software development skills as an academic can pay off. Also see: Daniel Lemire on why you should open source your projects. (I will get around to doing this eventually, I promise ;-))