10 June 2013

Why Not Pivotal Tracker?

We’ve been using Pivotal Tracker for a very long time. At least once we’ve made a serious attempt to switch to something else. The time has come for another attempt. Our goal is to provide a more complete, transparent, and malleable insight into our process with better metrics. That’s a lot in one sentence, so let’s take a look at what that really means.

First, I think Tracker was originally envisioned as a tool by consulting developers trying to get clients to understand agile. It makes a lot of assumptions about how to do that. Originally, I was attracted to the simplicity of ticket states and the obviousness of how to move through them. You brainstorm into the ice box. Prioritize stories into the backlog. Estimate each story. Start a story. Finish a story. Deliver a story. Then the customer can either accept or reject a story. Before Tracker I was using Bugzilla. The simplicity of Tracker was genius.

A significant portion of work no longer follows this simple workflow. I might guess about half of our stories deviate somewhere. First, ideas in the ice box need more work before they can be prioritized for development. We go through several iterations of wireframes and planning before the story can be developed. How can we track the progress of this work in Tracker? There are several workarounds, but that’s what they are. Ultimately the only way to track this is to deviate from what Tracker was designed to do.

Likewise, once development has begun there is a back and forth between the developers and designers on many stories. User facing stories need the UI built while the functionality is being built. Finally, design should review all user facing work before it’s delivered to the customer. How do you track this in Tracker? There are not enough states.

We can summarize this by saying Pivotal Tracker doesn’t not provide a smooth integration between UX, UI, and developers. Our process more complicated than the five state machine Tracker gives us. Often each project has different complexities in the process based on the context of the domain, the client’s capabilities and infrastructure, and the team we have working on it.

Second, Pivotal Tracker is heavily vested in velocity. What is velocity? In Tracker it is a moving average of the total estimated stories accepted in an iteration. The problem here is in the estimating. I used to think I was terrible at estimating. I used to think if I just were smarter or more experienced or tracked things better I’d be able to estimate more accurately. I now believe estimating is nearly impossible. There’s only a very small number of cases when we can actually estimate. There’s been a wealth of information coming out lately from well-known sources validating this.

If velocity is based on estimation; and estimation in inherently flawed; what does that mean? Pivotal Tracker is constantly calculating velocity. Each past iteration has it’s velocity shown on the iteration header. The page header boldly shows the current velocity. The backlog is broken up into estimated iterations based on current velocity. But that velocity is flawed. The estimated iteration boundaries are a distraction. We have to regularly have conversations with customers about velocity.

The idea is good. It’s trying to give the customer an idea when features might be finished and the ability to do long range planning. But if short term estimates are problematic, long term estimates are even more so. We need better metrics to better plan.

Lastly, Pivotal Tracker is obviously project based. This may be a problem that’s unique to our niche industry, but maybe not. We run several moderately sized projects concurrently. It is difficult for any one individual to understand what’s going on across these multiple projects. It’s difficult for one person to see where they might be able to step in and help when they have slack time. It’s also difficult for leadership to easily see where holes and bottlenecks occur. We would like to see some global board that shows us the state of each project and where to better get our team members working together.

This is a fairly long laundry list of things wrong with Pivotal Tracker. It’s doubtful we could have gotten to where we are as Gaslight without Pivotal Tracker. Without Tracker we would have had to use some other tool that had more baggage to work around. Tracker has been the simplest thing to do agile development for the last five years. However, these are problems we’ve found over the last year or so, as we’ve been trying to integrate more design into our development.

Our intention is to replace Tracker with some form of Kanban. David Anderson’s book, Kanban, is an easy read that highlights how, as a methodology, it can address all of these concerns. Exactly how we end up implementing Kanban isn’t quite clear. In the coming weeks it should become more clear and will warrant more writing. Stay tuned!

Note: We’ve published an updated post on how we’re managing projects now. Check out Beyond Pivotal Tracker: How We’re Managing Software Projects With Trello.

Heads up! This article may make reference to the Gaslight team—that's still us! We go by Launch Scout now, this article was just written before we re-introduced ourselves. Find out more here.

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