Project Practitioners > A newbie's notes on Agile tools and services

A newbie's notes on Agile tools and services

By Cinda Voegtli

As I wrote about some in my Executive View articles, I attended the Agile 2008 conference in August to find out more about the full landscape for agile development and project management.  What are people doing? How are they getting started?  Why did they decide to move to Agile?  One of the things I wanted to know about is tools and services.  It's inevitable that with a recognized, spreading approach like Agile, there are vendors in the space to help people.  I knew rather vaguely going in that there various Agile-related tools and training, some for development, some for management, some covering both, but I wanted to know more.  I especially wanted to know when and why companies would go for Agile tools, especially since I have always  been skeptical of people thinking that by adopting a tool they'd be achieving "good project management".... there are so many other things to worry about aside from the tool, no way is that the main part of implementing project management!

Also, I knew enough about the origins of Agile and its inherent abhorrence to over-formalizing anything, to wonder especially how the tool story is playing out in this space.   Here's a related comment from a Jack Vaughn article at TechTarget this earlier this year:    "The Agile development movement does not necessarily endorse tools. You can be agile and employ no more technology than a command line interface, a unit tester and some index cards on which to write requirements. But tools have evolved in recent years to better support Agile efforts. Among these newly evolving tools are several directly pegged at supporting a new type of project management."    And this, in the same article, John quoting Carey Schwaber of Forrester Research:   "Agile teams manage their work differently, according to Schwaber, and as a result, they call for a different breed of project management tool. Still, some teams rely on spreadsheets and wikis to keep things on track. Schwaber and others note that these ad hoc techniques can be stressed as Agile becomes a mainstream practice employed by larger development groups that tackle bigger projects."

With that as a backdrop, here are some observations from the Agile 2008 conference, based on conversations I had with a three different creators of Agile tools and services.  These three snippets represent an interesting cross-section of the kinds of tools and services on display at the conference and I appreciate the time these folks gave to me to explain their approach.   

Message received:   Tools don't have to just be for "later": One person I talked extensively with was Victor Szalvay, a co-founder of Danube Technologies, which provides Agile-related training and a tool called ScrumWorks.   Scrum is a specific approach to project management within the Agile universe, with teams focused on fast iterations or 'sprints' on a regular rhythm, meeting daily on progress against a prioritized list, and delivering something to the customer off the list at the end of each short iteration. According to Victor, he and his co-founder decided to create a tool to specifically support the Scrum approach, modeling closely the way the team will interact and make decisions on a project day to day. Thus the tool would be a natural part of how the team manages themselves, rather than an appendage, and could actually help them move to Agile more quickly and successfully.  (To make it easy to give this idea a try, Danube offers a free online version, ScrumWorks Basic, and a multi-user free trial of their full ScrumWorks Pro software.)

What's the rationale for even trying an "agile project management" tool early on?   As noted in the Schwaber quote above, Agile methods call for very different ways of deciding requirements and tasks (no big requirements documents here).  It can be done with paper - at the conference I saw many presentations with pictures of people doing things with Post-It notes on the walls - features, "user stories", arranged by what iteration they're in, etc.  You can absolutely get started with Post-Its and spreadsheets, and some teams evidently work that way forever.  But what I got from the conference overall is that used properly, tools can effectively replace those approaches and may be critical for larger or distributed teams.  And if the tools are easy and intuitive enough to learn quickly, they can be adopted early on for that benefit.   In Danube's case, what they feel is critical is how they've made ScrumWorks mimic what a team does with lists of potential features/user stories, how you select from a list to add stuff to the next iteration, etc.   The screen is like a workspace. One pane has the big list of all the possible things you could do.  Releases of multiple iterations can be created and scheduled.   Iterations for a release are defined in another pane on the screen and items from the list are dragged and dropped in.  Each person can get a view of what's on their personal list for the iteration and the priority order of their work.  The whole team can see the items in each iteration, and the iterations in each release, being "worked off".  I saw a demo and   Scrumworks did *not* feel like an unwieldy thing that helps in places, but doesn't work for everyone and doesn't even work exactly the way the PM needs - which is how I personally feel about Microsoft Project and similar tools, thus causing much of my own personal tools skepticism.  I *did* leave feeling like such a tool could be a help for a team as they move to Agile, even smaller ones. Speaking for myself, even though we're small, we have way too many things to get done, huge list to work off, and I'm sure not the post-it-and-spreadsheet approach is sustainable for me for the long term.  But I'm planning to try post-its AND some tools and see.

Message received:  It's not just about tools....there's "transition leverage" from immediate expertise:  I also spoke with Charlie Rudd and Erik Burke, CEO and VP respectively at SolutionsIQ, which does not sell a tool but is instead focused on the skill development, outsourced development, and staffing arena for Agile projects.   Their philosophy is that Agile is so different from traditional project management and development methods, that the major impediment to fast success can be cultural issues and lack of familiarity with how to operate in the new way - leading to the common "methodology adoption problems" PMs are familiar with, in this case adopting *Agile* quickly and effectively.  So SolutionsIQ provides a range of services to aid the Agile-specific transition. 

The first is Agile consulting to help with roll-out and adoption, including coaching and certification training courses for ScrumMasters - the Agile replacement of the task-master form of project manager.  It's a different role with at least some different behaviors.  Some people start with this training to get into the headspace of what it means to manage an Agile project.   The next major area for SolutionsIQ is doing actual software development for clients - the rationale being that with their extensive staff and network of experienced Agile developers, they can take on an entire project and get it done faster and with less risk.  Finally they provide several forms of Agile team staffing ("talent acquisition"), able to provide contingent staffing, managed project teams or functional pools of people, and recruiting services.  I especially found interesting their concept of blended agile teams - partial team "seeding" with Agile-savvy outside resources. They explained how this can work well for companies getting their feet wet with Agile. Rather than outsourcing the whole thing or going the other extreme  of immediately hiring new staff with Agile backgrounds, you take a middle ground and seed your in-house development team with key resources that are Agile-savvy AND technical/project management contributors.  And you're not just getting additional team members to do work, the SolutionsIQ team members coach the in-house people as the team gets it all done (and also coaches the involved executives as to their roles!) so that everyone learns Agile as they do the project together.

Message received:   Tools are not just about managing Agile development projects, there's also technology to generate, deploy, and maintain the actual code.    Finally for yet another focus, I spoke with Mike Jones, a vice-president at OutSystems and got a sense of Agile tools taken to the nth degree.  The tool supports management of the development work on the project according to Agile principles (iterations, fixed time, etc.), but it's really a special example of a full development and deployment environment, providing "fully integrated end-to-end application life-cycle support."    It's intended for IT teams to be able to create, deploy, maintain, and update web business applications from within the environment, using a visual interface for assembling applications and integrating them with existing systems.  OutSystems puts a big emphasis on how they've included not just code version control and continuous integration, but also mechanisms for supporting various operations tasks such as upgrades, migrations, and patch deployments to make changes easier, faster, and cheaper. They also tout their ability to deal effectively with legacy code, encapsulating that code or interfacing to it rather than having to re-write it to add significant capability to a system.   

There is way too much for me to describe here on all the components of their platform for doing all this; the main point is that there are toolsets that aim to go beyond Agile project management functions and development support functions, coupling all that with more capabilities to further speed up application development. I leave it to the reader to go investigate all the platform functionality further if you think this type of all-encompassing environment could be useful for your IT shop.  It Mike and his colleagues relayed a few examples of companies adopting the environment, getting some quick training up front, and working with OutSystems assistance to varying degrees to get new web business applications - such as a couple of biotech companies setting up clinical trials-related tracking tools - defined and running in a few weeks.   

So that's a quick newbie take on types of Agile tools and services based on the several in-depth conversations I got to have at the Agile 2008 conference. There were many more vendors there;  a partial list of vendors in the space can be found on the conference's sponsor page.  I've been looking around for a good comprehensive product-and-service provider list and haven't found one yet, but will keep trying and post it when I do.  In future blogs I'll also relay what I'm hearing from people about how long it takes for teams and organizations to get competent with Agile,  what the roadblocks are etc. - including how different companies use their in-house PMOs as well as outside training, coaching, consulting and tools to get there.    

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