Cockatoo Software

Creating Order out of Chaos

Published on 29 August, 2010 by Keith Pitty

Have you had that feeling your projects are out of control? It may even be one project that has gone of the rails. How do you regain control? The good news is that there are tools such as Basecamp, Unfuddle and Pivotal Tracker that can help, provided you employ them sensibly.

Chaos is Natural

Fractal

From the outset, I’d like to propose two axioms:

  1. Developing software is a complex endeavour;
  2. Ordered systems naturally tend towards chaos.

Anybody who has developed software of a non-trivial nature would agree with the first suggestion whilst those with a passing knowledge of science would associate the second proposition with entropy or the second law of thermodynamics. Anyway, the point is: software projects can easily get out of control!

Gantt Charts: FAIL

How should you attempt to keep your projects from degenerating into chaos? For a start, trust me. Don’t rely on Gantt charts using tools like Microsoft Project! I have seen project managers spend far too much of their time adjusting these charts in a futile attempt to keep their project schedules “on track”. If you are tempted to use Gantt charts, please resist! There are better, more realistic approaches.

Wake me up when it’s done

In contrast to the micro-management that Gantt charts require, studies have shown that it is more effective to delegate tasks with the simple expectation of being informed when they’re complete. In other words, “wake me up when it’s done”.

Keeping track of issues

Realistically though, users find issues with software. They may be bugs, mismatches in expectations or new features that are needed. Somehow, these issues need to be managed. There are countless tools that can help. In this article, I’ll focus on three that I’ve had recent experience with. Whilst each have helped in different ways, a feature that they have in common is that they are all online tools.

Recommended Tools

Basecamp

Basecamp adopts a minimalist approach. In keeping with the 37signals philosophy, unnecessary complexity is shunned.

I’ve found Basecamp to be useful recently in a small website project involving three people. The main advantage has been the way that Basecamp allows messages and files to be accumulated in one place online. I think it is fair to say that collaboration has improved as a result.

Unfuddle

Unfuddle is targeted at software developers. Whilst it also provides source code repository hosting, the facilities it provides for tracking bugs and features are sophisticated. Tickets can be allocated to milestones as well as assigned relationships with other tickets. I have found the Unfuddle API to be very useful for automating the generation of hundreds of tickets for a particular milestone. Another useful feature is Notebooks, which allow important information to be documented for the team to refer to.

Pivotal Tracker

I’ve saved the best until last. Pivotal Tracker is not only my favourite software project management tool but it is free! Having appreciated the dawn of the so-called “agile” approach to software development a decade ago via eXtreme Programming, it is a sheer delight to use Pivotal Tracker. Back then, we relied on index cards but there was frequent discussion about the untapped opportunity for good tool support to agile approaches. Pivotal Tracker fills the gap.

If you don’t immediately find Pivotal Tracker helpful you may need a refresher in agile project planning. Central is the idea of a project’s “velocity”, which predicts how much the team can achieve over the coming weeks and months based on it’s track record. Rather than describe in detail how Pivotal Tracker works, I suggest you give it a try. If your team needs help with agile project management, Cockatoo Software is happy to help!

Conclusion

In this article, I’ve briefly described three project management tools, all of which I’ve found helpful for different reasons. Think about the challenges your project team faces before choosing a tool.

Good luck with guiding your projects closer to order than chaos!

Keith Pitty is the owner of Cockatoo Software Pty Limited. He has over 30 years of professional software development experience and has a passion for providing software solutions that help people. Away from computers he loves sport, especially cricket, golf and Australian Rules football.