Transparency, Clarity, and Focus: How Pivotal Tracker Enables Agile Collaboration

November 27, 2012 Paul M. Davis

An easel. A marker. Sometimes the most effective and immediate way to capture thoughts and collaborate is also the most tactile, visual, and simple. But easels and markers have their limitations: information is difficult to digitally preserve, and they don’t scale to large teams. In 2005, agile software development and consulting company Pivotal Labs faced this very design and collaboration challenge in its client development projects, and began building a software tool that could match the wide-frame scope and immediacy of tracking a project’s progress using markers and an easel.

“We were trying every week to come up with very concrete, fine-grained, real verifiable things to build, that made sense to a customer who was in a room and made a very incremental, but concrete step forward for the project,” explains Dan Podsedly, VP and General Manager, Pivotal Tracker at Pivotal Labs. “Week after week, we wrote those lists of stories on a big huge piece of easel paper stuck to the wall, and developers would cross off those stories as we got to them, and the product owner would check things off that were verified. It was very tactile and visible, and created a lot of energy and focus — everyone knew what we were working on, what we had done, and had a sense whether we were making progress or not. But we didn’t have any software tools that allowed us to capture the same sort of lightweight, visible qualities.”

The team built Pivotal Tracker, a collaboration tool designed from the ground-up to serve the needs of its agile development teams and clients. “We were simply trying to capture that simplicity — the radiation of information of a big, colorful list stuck on the wall in a place that everyone could see it,” says Podsedly. “We wanted to capture that sense of visibility — where you could always see, out of the corner of your eye, the big picture of where you were at in the project on that day.” Within two weeks the company was already using Tracker to collaborate on client projects.

It wasn’t only Pivotal’s internal development teams that quickly saw Tracker’s value. Before long, the company found itself inundated with requests from clients that wanted to continue using it after their development projects wrapped up. “It was a side project,” says Podsedly, “but it started to get really popular with clients who wanted to continue to use it after our project with them was complete.” Due to the demand, Pivotal Labs announced a public-facing version of Tracker in 2008. Adoption soared, and by 2011, “it was clear that we had to turn it into a product because otherwise there would be no way to keep building and supporting it when there were thousands of companies that relied on it,” Podsedly explains.

Working Within the Detail

Pivotal Tracker is more than a project management tool: it reflects the nimble approach to software development Pivotal Labs is known for. It’s not merely a way for teams to communicate about their progress, but instead a real-time monitor of the project’s health, at both a micro and macro scale. “It becomes like an EKG,” says Drew McManus, VP of Product at the company. “A doctor can walk into a hospital room, glance at a monitor, and get an immediate impression of how a patient is doing and an understanding of where they need to focus attention,” he says. “For product managers, Tracker’s the same. It’s a reflection of the health of the project.”

A core component of Pivotal’s methodology is in its stories, the many minute tasks that comprise the entirety of a development project. Each story represents an incremental piece of the much bigger puzzle. Working on projects at such an atomic level can be imposing to some product managers at first, but the benefits of the approach are quickly revealed, explains McManus. “Product managers who haven’t worked this way are used to going to teams and saying something like, ‘okay, we need a store with a shopping cart,’” he says. “Using stories in Tracker forces a level of specificity and granularity that ensures that you’re not going beyond the absolute requirements. In Tracker, ‘I need a store with a shopping cart’ might translate into 50 stories that say things like, ‘as a shopper, when I click on an add to cart button, the number of items in my cart goes up and the number of items in the inventory goes down.’ That’s a very specific thing that the developer can implement, and knows when it’s done.”

“It’s a very discrete chunk of work,” he says, “so you don’t end up with people running off and building a bunch of stuff you didn’t ask for, instead you end up with a pretty accurate estimate, because estimating ‘when I click a button it does this’ is easier than building a store with a shopping cart.” This process yields dividends over the life of a project, McManus explains, enabling “a kind of transparency that leads to better accuracy, better estimation, and fewer misunderstandings.”

Tracker isn’t simply geared toward achieving laser-like focus on a specific tasks. What makes the tool uniquely effective is that it enables such focus, while still reflecting the progress of a project at the macro scale. “What we try to do with Tracker is make it possible to work within the detail, without losing sight of everything that’s around it,” says Podsedly. “Everything is inline and on one page, offering a radiation of multi-layered information that you can see without ever leaving that page.” This key aspect of Tracker’s designs hearkens back to the product’s inspiration. “Much like when you’re in a room and have lists on the wall,” he says, “you always see an overall view of the project, no matter what you’re doing. You never ever lose visibility of what’s going on.”

Tracker reflects a philosophy to product development that emphasizes rapid iteration, flexibility, ongoing communication, and the collaborative methodologies of pair programming. “We often refer to Tracker as a repository for starting points for conversation,” says McManus.

By breaking projects down into discrete stories, and enabling team members to work within the detail while communicating in real-time, Tracker reduces the risk of miscommunication, misallocated resources, and scope creep. “You get away from projects where the team has been working furiously on something that probably isn’t necessary, or putting a lot of time into building architecture for a feature that may not be the most important,” McManus says. “By having Tracker as the single plan or record, it makes it absolutely clear what should be done and what shouldn’t be done.”

Achieving Velocity

Breaking large projects into discrete stories provides real-time metrics of a project’s ongoing health at various levels of granularity. It also equips teams and product managers with the power of prediction. Tracker allows users to track the pace and patterns of productivity in the aggregate, over a period of time. This velocity allows teams to identify issues of process, and get a reasonably accurate estimate of how much a new or changed feature will add to the project’s lifecycle.

“When you’re working on a project every day, you encounter opportunities to increase scope,” says Podsedly. “Somebody wants to add a new feature, the boss wants to do something he read about in a magazine. With Tracker, you say, ‘let’s write a story for that, let’s put it in the backlog and estimate it,’ and you can see immediately the milestones moving down according to dates.” Teams and managers can make informed decisions on how a new feature will affect the overall timetable of the project. Podsedly explains this “turns the conversation from ‘us versus them’ to a question of, ‘how do we, together, get that line to move back up?’ And generally, that’s in the form of de-prioritizing something else. Tracker makes that so easy that these conversations actually happen and they shift to being a constructive approach to managing scope on an ongoing basis.”

With its ability to project future velocity, Tracker enables teams to make informed decisions and quickly shift priorities. “The most accurate assessment of how much work you’ll get done is how you’ve done recently,” says Podsedly. “Tracker allows you to look forward and see how much you will do in coming weeks.”

It also allows teams to reflect on their workflow and change strategies. “You want to see a nice, smooth velocity chart, because that means that you’re performing consistently,” McManus says. “If your velocity swings up and down from week to week, that’s another important thing to bring up with your team and ask, ‘are we estimating things properly? Was there some misunderstanding of these features that ended up taking much longer or less time than we thought?’”

Despite its predictive power and ability to drill into the detail, Tracker still honors the simplicity and visibility of the low-tech collaboration tools that inspired it. Rather than replacing conversation, Tracker creates new opportunities for collaboration and communication. At a fundamental level, Tracker reveals an incredibly simple yet powerful principle. “Tracker allows you to plan,” says Podsedly, “and drives open, honest communication among teams.”

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