The Board Episode 46 — Agile Tools

By Rebecca Jones in Agile Other on March 17, 2015


In Episode 46 of The Board, we talk about:

Further reading

Learn more about video conferencing in our Product Owner’s guide to successful Scrum teams.

Increase transparency using big visible information radiators: How Agile transparency reduces project risk

Full transcript

Kirstin Donaldson: Hello, and welcome to The Board. This is our 46th episode after our aborted attempt to do a 45th episode last week. [laughs] We had some Internet issues, but we’re back and we’re live.

Today we’re going to be talking about Agile tools and platforms. The first bunch of things we are going to talk about, we briefly discussed it this morning, is tools or platforms that help us with planning our sprints, checking our sprints, and checking releases.

Jesse Stegmann: It’s always a common question that we get asked, “What do you guys use?” I suppose people are really keen to get a new tool, most of the time [laughs]

Kirstin: There’s a range that we’ve used and a range that we’ve come into contact with.

It seems the ones that I’ve personally come into contact with are used for different types of projects. Around here, the most commonly used platform for us is Rallydev, or Rally depending on what you want to call it, which gives us a lot of power in terms of tracking, reporting, and release planning. You might have a bit more to say about that than me.


Jesse: Rally is starting at the organizational level right down to the team level. You can track your streams of work and everything that’s going on within the organization in an agile way, and break that right down to a user story that a team delivers. Even, there’s bug tracking and stuff like that.

It’s a really, really powerful tool. There’s heaps of reporting. You can customize dashboards for each role that you might have on your team. Managers can see a different view than what team members can see. We find it really great, but it’s an industrial…

Kirstin: Industrial-strength.

Jesse: …strengths scrum tool. It really has…


Kirstin: I can think of a number of our organizations in Wellington that would benefit, for example. Government departments that are moving to Agile, they’re the people that are really looking at that kind of scale, but also some of the larger SMEs that we’re coming into contact with.

Jesse: Absolutely. Basically, if you’re taking that step beyond having one or two teams delivering, and you’re looking to move into Agile planning and trying to track your work from the very start, all the way through and streams work, that’s when Rally really comes into its own.

Kirstin: Rally is so fully featured, that we’ve done quite a bit of learning over the last year. We’d like to continue doing learning. To that end, we’ve set up a Rally user group on Meetup, here in Wellington. If anyone’s using Rally, or wants to use Rally, and wants to come along and talk about how we can get the best out of it, we’ll pop the link afterwards to that meetup.

It’s in a month’s time. It’s going to be held at our office. There may be drinks and snacks, depending on how organized I am. No, there’ll definitely be something along those lines. [laughs] We’re hoping that people will come along with questions. We’ll run it a bit like a lean coffee, so that we can get a spread of topics covered in the hour that we’re meeting.

Jesse: I think, when I was having a look for our meetup, there are a lot of Rally user groups spread all over the world. Do check out Meetup. If you’re not in Wellington and you are interested in Rally or need some help with Rally, there are plenty of groups out there that you can get in touch with.

Kirstin: Meetup’s great for that. It’s a group for anything you can think of, isn’t it?

Jesse: Yeah. Absolutely.

Kirstin: That’s Rally. One of the ones that we used that we’ve had on earlier is Pivotal Tracker. It’s quite simple if you’re new to the whole thing, you’ve got one team perhaps. It’s got some nice drag-and-drop functionality. It sits out quite nicely. I think that the sprint Backlog and the Icebox…

Jesse: Yeah. It’s really nice.

Kirstin: It’s all done in a column view and a drag-and-drop to play your sprints and move things between the Icebox and the Backlog.

Jesse: I’d agree with that. It’s really a great tool if you need something and you’re going to be starting tomorrow. It’s really quick to get up and running, really easy for teams and product owners to get the hang of.

Kirstin: It’s quite intuitive because of its simplicity, isn’t it?

Jesse: Yeah.

Kirstin: There’s not much training involved in it though.

Jesse: No, no. Again, to get to the flip side. Once you start wanting to track a little bit more, it does get a bit more challenging.

Kirstin: When your practice has matured, you’ve maybe expanded a bit, you can look at something with more features, more along the lines of portfolio planning by Rally.

Jesse: I suppose our organization mirrors that. We started with Pivotal Tracker, and we were very happy with it for a long time. Then we reached a point where there were reporting requirements that we needed and the next level of tracking that we really wanted, and it didn’t quite fit, so we moved on.

Kirstin: There are a couple of other ones that have come up in the last three years, that have been working with One of them is Trello, which is a free tracking board. For me, Trello is very, very simple, and I feel like it’s best suited to personal [indecipherable 06:12.17] , [laughs] rather than to a project. I just don’t think it gives a project enough. What do you think?

Jesse: Again, Trello has its place. I think Kanban fits really well, because you have the flexibility of mapping out as many columns as you want. One space I’ve see it used a lot is in startups, with businesses sharing their backlog and being transparent about their backlog with customers,

Managing their features in a trailer board, and allowing that interaction with people is something that seems really great. Then again, there are just little things, like you can’t put sizes on stories and those kinds of things. To be fair to Trello, I think there are plug-ins and add-ons that you can get, where people are working on those features, but it’s not out of the box.

Kirstin: The other thing about Trello, for me, is that I’ve seen people using it in isolation. They aren’t using visible workspaces because they feel Trello’s enough, which I think is probably missing an opportunity of using software.

It sits out nicely, like a visible workspace. But obviously, it’s not a physical one, so people need to go and seek it out to see what’s happening. There’s really, for me, no replacement for walking past a board and being able to see where things are at…

Jesse: Absolutely.

Kirstin: …and a snapshot of you. My advice to people would be, “Yeah, great, use something online, particularly with your remotely-located collaborators, but please still use the visible workspaces ,or at least try it. [laughs] If you don’t find it useful then, give it up.

Jesse: We’ve got a classic example where our product owner is remote to the team. He doesn’t see our board. We had a discussion with the team and they were still really, really keen to keep their visible workspace. They still use the visible workspace far more than they do the online tool, just because it’s great to have that information radiator, and see what’s happening in a sprint very quick, at a glance.

It’s right near the team, so they don’t have to open a new browser window to see anything. They just glance up and it’s right there for them. That’s a really important thing, whether using Trello or any other tool to track your sprints. We really encourage you to get it up on a wall somewhere.

Kirstin: What about JIRA? A lot of people have naturally evolved from using JIRA for bug tracking, which was what was originally developed for, to now using their Agile tools. I’ve never seen it personally. Have you interacted with it?

Jesse: I wouldn’t say I have great deal of experience. I’ve had a look at it. We’ve worked with some clients that use it and are quite happy with it. It probably fits somewhere in between Pivotal and Rally. It’s great for tracking your sprints and your teams, it does a little bit of reporting, but it doesn’t take the next step up to managing your portfolios and that kind of thing.

With any of these tools, I’d really encourage people to find something that fits for purpose.

Kirstin: Absolutely, try a few things. Rather than just fixing on one immediately, finding something that’s…experimenting with what’s going to work.

Jesse: If Trello lets you get started and lets you work with scrum and Agile, and it works for you to start with, I’d say, “Great, and start with that.” Eventually, once you get a bit little more mature and you start going, “I know. It’d be really great if we could have a burn down.” Then you can go, “OK, maybe Trello’s not quite right,” and you graduate through the tools.

Don’t feel like you have to pick one to start with and one tool…

Kirstin: And stay with it forever.

Jesse: …that’s yours forever. All of these tools, these days it’s very easy to get your data out and get your data into something else.

Kirstin: Yeah, they need to be flexible.

Jesse: Lots of people use JIRA. Lots of people like it. We, for whatever reason, haven’t had a great deal of touch with it.

Kirstin: I’ve only used it for bug tracking, years ago.

Jesse: The one thing that people really do like about JIRA is it’s flexible in terms of adding custom fields. It does let you, if you have a special requirement, to add to your user stories. It’s very easy to customize the fields. You’re not stuck with Title, Description, and Story Points, and that’s what you’ve got to work with.

Kirstin: I don’t know. I think there’s a danger in that. [laughs] It’s a bit like CRMs. When people first configure a CRM and they have every field on earth in there, they end up with something really unwieldy. I think there’s a danger of being able to add fields to a user story, that it’s going to become incredibly complex, not in the spirit of what a user story’s for. But that’s just a side note. [laughs]

Moving on, we’re going to start talking about video conferencing tools that we’ve personally used. This comes up more and more. The world is becoming smaller, intensive — the speed of Internet connections, our ability to speak to people in different time zones relatively effectively, compared to say, 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, when I moved to the UK, the only option available to me was the telephone.

Jesse: What? [laughs]

Kirstin: Yeah, landline, and it cost me absolutely a fortune every month. Oh no, I tell a lie. There was also handwriting letters, which I did a lot of, and I used to get mail just about every single day. It was quite exciting.

Obviously now, we’ve got so many more options in our [indecipherable 12:46.17] world. We regularly use Google Hangout, Skype, and I also use Zoom. I think there are advantages in all of those tools, and I’d like to talk a wee bit about them. You use Google Hangout a bit more than me, I think.

Jesse: Yeah, we’ve used Hangouts, and we’ve also just moved to something called Appear.IM…

Kirstin: Appear?

Jesse: Yep.

Kirstin: A-P-P-E-A-R?

Jesse: …which is a similar style tool.

Kirstin: Why did you move from Google Hangout to Appear? Are you just experimenting?

Jesse: One of the developers came across it and suggested it. We were having a bit of an issue with Hangouts. I’m not sure if it’s the New Zealand Internet connection thing, but the quality just wasn’t quite there.

In our situation, we had most of the team in the office here, a product owner phoning in, and then occasionally team members calling in when they worked from home or something. When we got that situation where there were three or four people in the call, the quality really dropped off. We’re not sure why. So we’re just having a play with a few other tools, and Appear has been really great.

Kirstin: The other thing with Google Hangout is it’s really disconcerting when someone does something like put a dog’s face over their face. I was having a serious conversation with our MD some time ago, and the next minute, there he was with whiskers and a dog’s nose and some devil’s horns, which made it quite hard to continue that serious conversation.

Equally, one of our product owners suddenly appeared in a pirate hat recently.

Jesse: Yeah, it does make Backlog grooming challenging.

Kirstin: More fun? Challenging? OK. [laughs]

Jesse: I don’t know. More fun.

The one thing that we did like about Google Hangouts, and why we started with it, was the ability to keep the same Hangout for stand ups and stuff like that. You share the link and you can come back to the same Hangout, so you don’t have to set up a new one and invite people every time.

The reason Appear replaced that is that it still has that feature. We have a room. We’ve got it reserved URL, and people can use it anytime.

Kirstin: Is it free or paid for?

Jesse: It’s free, at the moment.

Kirstin: Are they a startup business?

Jesse: Yeah, they’re in a startup. I think what’s going to happen is when you get to more people in the conversation, then they’ll charge. We’re finding that really great at the moment, having that space. It’s essentially another room for the team. If they ever need to talk to the product owner who’s remote, they just…

Kirstin: They just pop in.

Jesse: It’s not even a question of, “Shall we do Hangout? Shall we do it on Skype, FaceTime, or whatever?” It’s just they’re going to appear and they have a chat.

Kirstin: I quite like Zoom, which is free for up to an hour. Normally, the conversations I’m having — pre-sales conversations — they’re not usually more than an hour. I like it because it highlights the person who’s speaking, bringing the person who is speaking into the big window.

If it’s two people speaking, the conversation just highlights them as who’s speaking. You can organize for recurrent appointments, for example if you’re using it for stand up. I’ve used it for a while actually.

The thing about Skype is it appears that everybody has a Skype ID. Skype has been around for many years. I was an early user of Skype, back when everyone was still using MSN Messenger. I started using Skype because it was just a bit more slick. It was, for quite some time, the only tool I would use.

But there have been so many other products that have come out now that there are alternatives. What a lot of people do is, certainly in New Zealand, when Skype’s not working very well, they’ll switch to Zoom. If Zoom’s not working very well, they’ll switch to Google Hangout. We’ll go around the systems until we strike one that’s working to our satisfaction that day.

That doesn’t happen every time, but it could be a challenge.

Jesse: I read a really interesting blog post from the guys at Pivotal Labs. They have a lot of people working remotely, and they did this blog post. Their biggest problem with video conferencing tools is not video anymore. It’s audio. That’s something I don’t know if you’ve found, but we found it’s very rare that you can’t see the person — there might be a bit of lag in the video — but our biggest problem is getting everyone heard.

Kirstin: Is that to do with the volume of voices, or the actual audio?

Jesse: No, no, it’s the actual audio. We do have some very quiet people in the team, but it is the quality of the audio. They can’t hear me sometimes.

Kirstin: I haven’t really struck that problem. I use Skype at home to talk to friends in the UK. When there’s a problem it’s usually a freeze, always when they’ve got a weird expression on their face, or when I’ve got a weird expression on my face.

Jesse: We’ll pop the link up to the Pivotal thing. They have a quite novel solution. They’ve figured out that iPads with the speaker cases…I’m not sure if you’ve seen those before.

Kirstin: No, I’ve not seen those.

Jesse: They are for guys who want to watch videos, or girls who just want to watch videos.

Kirstin: People, just people.

Jesse: Just people who want to watch videos on their iPad. They are quite good quality of speakers, and then a mic, which plugs into that.

Kirstin: That’s their optimum solution?

Jesse: That’s what all their teams use. If they’re working remotely with someone, they just pick up their iPad and have it next to their computer to talk to people.

Kirstin: Maybe we should look at something like that for those individual conversations.

Jesse: That’d be very useful.

Kirstin: Before we move on to comms tools, just a word on what we use for all our remote workers, because people are in and out all the time. We use Sococo, which is a virtual team space. That allows us to chat, message, and video conference. Has different rooms you can work in, if it’s not pertinent to the whole team they don’t want to be bothered by it.

I find that works reasonably well, most of the time. Sometimes it’s a bit restarty, but you get used to that stuff, don’t you?

Jesse: I suppose this is a good segue into comms tools. When you are working in that remote environment, just having a place where everyone is…

Kirstin: Where you can see them, yeah.

Jesse: …and you know that everyone’s around, is really great.

Kirstin: There are little avatars that show up on the team workspace, visuals that you can see.

Jesse: When we were choosing tools, one of our teams experimented with a tool called Squiggle. That’s the same idea, except it uses your camera and takes a photo of you every minute or so.

Kirstin: With a cam or something.

Jesse: You can see if a person is at their desk, but you’re not watching them type in real time.

Kirstin: Or picking their nose.

Jesse: You just have to make sure you time when you pick your nose, so it doesn’t get captured forever.


Jesse: We did have an amusing experience. One of the guys had been working on a really tricky problem for about three days and it took a photo of him going like this just as he’d…

Kirstin: Because he’d won!

Jesse: He’d won, he’d fixed the problem so that was quite cool.

Kirstin: That’s very nice.

On comms tools, there are a number of things that we use. Sometimes it’s specific to projects. Sometimes it’s a whole team thing. One thing we make good solid use of is Basecamp. Once you’ve started using Basecamp on a project, you just can’t go back to email. It’s just so hard to find email conversations.

Jesse: Yeah, absolutely.

Kirstin: It’s not hard to find them, but it’s really easy to miss stuff.

Jesse: Yeah, it’s really easy to miss stuff. Its also great…anyone can find it. It might start off as a conversation between two team members, but then if you need to bring someone else in, you don’t have to have to forward them this horrible mess of an email string. You just say, “Ah, here’s the link in Basecamp.”

Kirstin: Plus, for people who get a little delete-happy on their email…

Jesse: That’s me.

Kirstin: Yeah, same. It’s always randomly done though. It’s never consistent. But Basecamp, it stays there. There’s no random deletion of conversations.

Jesse: Just for people who don’t realize we’re just going on about Basecamp…

Kirstin: Everybody knows what Basecamp is, don’t they?

Jesse: Possibly not. It’s designed as a lightweight project management tool. You can have conversations within Basecamp, like an email….

Kirstin: Written conversations.

Jesse: …written conversations, like an email thread. Its all stored and searchable. You can also track purchases. There are calendars and milestones…

Kirstin: And tasks.

Jesse: …and tasks and those sorts of things. It does give you all the tools to manage a project, but it is designed to be lightweight.

Kirstin: It works much the same way a discussion forum would work, in terms of written communication. You start threads and you can add whole project teams, specific members. You can hide it from your client for some reason. We never use that.

You can attach files, screenshots, documents. It just keeps it all in one place, really helps to have that thread of conversation. What is bad is when people continually reply to the same thread on different topics. Then you end up with just one thread for the whole project.

Jesse: There are some nice little features, as well, in Basecamp. It does send you email alerts when people respond to your communication.

Kirstin: And, you can respond from your email, which I think is really important for clients. Everybody has so many logins these days. While we go into Basecamp every single day, they may only have ten percent of their day focused on that particular project. If they can reply from within their email, it doesn’t disturb the flow of their normal work.

Jesse: Yeah, absolutely. There’s really been no one that’s objected to using it.

Kirstin: I did have one client.

Jesse: Oh, one.

Kirstin: He said he had too many systems. But it did make things difficult, in terms of finding previous communication with that particular client.

Jesse: You can’t understate the file management, as well. It’s great if someone sends you a document, being able to stick it up there, and that’s where it is.

Kirstin: Name it appropriately, name the thread.

Jesse: Yeah, name the thread. You can preview them. It’s just a central place, where’s the file.

Kirstin: For some reason, we’re running on two versions of Basecamp, an old Basecamp and new Basecamp. Have they not given us the ability to migrate projects?

Jesse: There’s definitely the ability to migrate projects.

Kirstin: We just haven’t done it.

Jesse: There is a very convoluted explanation that I’m not going to bore people with.

Kirstin: [laughs] OK, OK.

Jesse: That would be wonderful if we could just be on one.

Kirstin: Yeah, no wouldn’t it? Anyway, that’s an internal thing, probably. [laughs] Another one that you guys use, in terms of chat functionality is Slack, which you started using this year, late last year.

Jesse: One of our clients started using Slack for their teams and invited us to join in, so we’d be party to what was going on.

Kirstin: Previously, we’d used Campfire, which is part of Basecamp, right?

Jesse: Yeah.

Kirstin: I always found Campfire was quite hard to add new users to projects.


Jesse: Basecamp has since, I think…

Kirstin: They fixed it?

Jesse: No, discontinued Campfire, sort of refocused their…didn’t really give it much attention, I don’t think.

Kirstin: Didn’t get much love.

Jesse: We’ve been using Slack, and it’s been really, really good.

Kirstin: What do you like about it?

Jesse: It’s very easy to set up and get started, quickly. They have the idea of channels, which I suppose is similar to rooms in Sococo. There’s a channel for dev stuff, there’s a random channel to post pictures of cats.

Kirstin: Right, the minutiae of life.

Jesse: There’s something to get in touch with everyone.

Kirstin: Like a broadcast.

Jesse: Yeah. It’s really easy to get going with. There are some simple ways of tagging people and creating new actions. They’re also clever, in that they integrate with a lot of tools. You can start a Hangout from Slack, which is nice if you’re having a chat with someone and you then say, “Actually, we need to talk about this probably.”

You just type in the short code and you have a Hangout straightaway, which is nice. They’re adding new stuff all the time, which keeps it interesting.

Kirstin: Fresh, keeps you coming back.

Jesse: Keeps us coming back. It works seamlessly, and it’s really great. The notification level that you get is highly customizable, so you don’t have to find out about every word that everyone says, which I think is sometimes a problem with chat tools. Someone says hi to someone else, and you get notified about it. Also, our client has really bought into it, so itis a really vibrant place.

Kirstin: That’s good. Yeah, [indecipherable 27:32.09] . I was invited to join it, but I didn’t have time, what with one thing or another, to participate in conversations. Its not my project, so you know — got various [laughs] chat channels going on in various things, so I didn’t subscribe to that.

But I noticed they were quite, “Check in the morning. ‘Hey, I’m here. I’m doing this’ or, ‘I’m not in the office. I’m somewhere else. I’ll be there at a certain time,'” Much like the way that we use Sococo. Not so much lately, but I have used Sococo in the past.

Jesse: That’s a really important point to make. These tools don’t need engagement, whichever ones you’re going to use.

Kirstin: They do need engagement.

Jesse: They do need engagement. We tried Yammer, I think it was Sococo.

Kirstin: Some while ago, yeah, and I wasn’t a fan of it.

Jesse: I don’t know why. I don’t think it was anything to do with the tool, but we just didn’t click with it.

Kirstin: I know lots of people that use it, though.

Jesse: I know someone who absolutely swears by it, thinks it’s the best thing ever. But if your teams are not engaged with these tools, it’s not going to work. Really, there’s no point in trying to force something on your teams. It’s always better for it to come from the team, to ID the need for chat, video conferencing, or something like that.

Kirstin: That’s right.

OK, we’ll wrap it up, but just before we go, a small announcement. I don’t know if we ever announced that Devon has unfortunately left us for another company, at the end of last year.

Jesse: Just disappeared.

Kirstin: Quite suddenly disappeared. Sadly we had to wave goodbye to him, but we are welcoming two new Agile coaches in a couple of weeks time. Hopefully, the next board or the one after that, there’ll be someone new on the couch.

Jesse: That’ll be exciting.

Kirstin: Look forward to having someone new join us.

We’ll see you in a couple of weeks.

Jesse: See you.