Born in 1929, Royce entered the California Institute of Technology, where he received his BS in physics, his MS in aeronautical engineering and in 1959 his PhD in aeronautical engineering under Julian David Cole with the thesis Transonic flow over a non-lifting, slender body of revolution.
Royce had begun his career as Assistant Professor at the California Institute of Technology. In 1961 he started as project manager in the aerospace division of TRW. His first project concerned the design of a mission planning and orbit selection system for spacecraft. In the following years he was involved in the research and development of several large and complex software systems, and started developing new methodologies for improving the management of software project. In 1970 he published his influential article "Managing the development of large software systems", in which he presented several project management models, including what we now know as waterfall, iterative, and agile. In 1985, he received the AIAA Information Systems Award. During the 1980s he was director at Lockheed Software Technology Center in Austin, Texas. He retired in 1994 and died the following year at his home in Clifton, Virginia.
His eldest son is Walker Royce, Chief Software Economist of IBM's Rational division, and author of "Software Project Management, A Unified Framework", and a principal contributor to the management philosophy inherent in the IBM Rational Unified Process.
In fact Royce demonstrated that while the development of large software systems required a more thorough approach, there was inherent risk in a single-pass sequential approach. He proposed an iterative and incremental approach and advocated that projects should pass through this at least twice.