Over the course of the last 2 years, I have tried out a number of Agile project management tools. These tools are very important to us as we are often on distributed teams, given we have an office in Mohali, India. So although we follow an Agile approach to our custom dev projects, we cannot stick to the Agile commandment that all development and project resources should work in the same location . Therefore a simple and efficient Agile card board on the wall will not suffice. We need a tool that can be referenced not only by the internal development teams in Chicago and Mohali, but also often by the client as well. We emphasize an open and transparent approach to our client relationship, which means our clients can log in and see the progress whenever they wish. This includes joining the daily-stand ups if they want.
So here is a quick run through of the tools we have tried, and why we ended up settling onAgile Zen.
Note that this post was also cross-posted to the Triton-Tek website, you can see it here also:
MICROSOFT TEAM FOUNDATION SERVER (TFS)
Being a Microsoft, .NET shop, we all have access to Visual Studio 2010 and we have our own Team Foundation Server (TFS). Therefore the TFS addition to Visual Studio is the natural first stop. Microsoft has gradually embraced Agile, and added some pretty robust Agile and Scrum templates for managing requirements (stories) and test cases within TFS. See this example of the Agile template for a story:
There are some obvious advantages to using TFS, and we did use it on a number of projects, big and small. The key advantage being that requirements traceability, from story to implementation, is very tight, as code can be checked against the story itself. Tasks, unit tests and test cases can also be associated to user stories, increasing the tight integration of the user story to all the anciliary work required to implement it correctly.
However, the drawback is that it is not a very Agile environment to work in. There is no Agile story board from which to gain a quick birds-eye view on the progress, and everything is constructed as a list or a form. Each of these lists and forms have a thousand options to select from, and it can be both overwhelming, and very redundant, resulting in either a form that is overloaded with information, or almost entirely empty. In summary, it feels like a traditional Waterfall project tool adapted to fit some Agile terminology and workflows, but not really buying in to the ideology and methodology.
Given this feedback on TFS, I ran our next project in both TFS and Rally, as Rally is a custom Agile tool. However we ran in to the same sort of issues, that although there was now an Agile story board, that provided this nice overview of the project. It was still a highly complex tool, and just didn’t progress us far enough away from the list and form intensity of TFS.
It was this experience that emphasized we were looking for a simple, elegant solution, that emphasizes the discussion principals of Agile over documentation.
We used this simple, and free, tool on two projects. It certainly shifted us back to the simplicity and story board-centric oversight we were looking for. Although it is developed in Flash, it works well enough. However what put a nail in the coffin of SeeNowDo was the lack of story portability, meaning that it was an overly-laborious task to create the Iterations, and assign the Stories to those Iterations. Then to move stories to another Iteration was a really time-consuming. It also suffered a little from server unpredicatability (it is free after all and I think sometimes the volume of users was too high), and the Flash interface could be buggy, sometimes crashing or sticking.
Regardless of these concerns, it is a great tool and does the simple things well, so I for one would highly recommend this option, especially as it is free.
This is the tool we now use, and have grown from using the free plan (1 project, 1 collaborator), through the Personal plan ($9/month for 3 projects, 3 collaborators) to the Unlimited plan ($99/month) where we currently have 10 active projects, some with 12 collaborators.
What makes this tool the winner, is that it is a combination of beautifully executed simplicity, combined with a depth of options, carefully removed from most views. This means you get an Agile story board, customizable to your teams workflow (we personally use Ready -> Working -> Ready to Test -> Done), but also a myriad of options to expand on the basic user story as necessary. Simply by providing color coding and tag options to the stories, Agile Zen allows you to achieve the combination of User Stories with other project tasks you get with Rally or TFS, but without that feeling of clutter. It also drops some aspects we thought we needed, such as defining Iterations and an automatic burndown chart. It is more of a continuously flowing Kanban board, rather than a Scrum board. However using tags, you can get around this problem, and the burndown chart is not difficult to do yourself. What Agile Zen delivers is great way to see what is happening now, what still needs to be done, and where the blockages are. The stories are extensible enough to provide as much detail as you want to add, but the always visible UI is clean and usable.
The negatives with Agile Zen is that they do not have an import feature, so you have to manually create the stories 1 by 1 in the interface. They have an API, but obviously that is more complex and we have not integrated with that at this time. There are some people in the Agile Zen community working on import and Excel integration so it is worth checking the support forums.
As always, the answer is “it depends”. However, in our experience, for an Agile project, the emphasis on simplicity and project status visibility was paramount, and so Agile Zen was the solution for us. However, Microsoft is really stripping bare the TFS interface for the new TFS 11 which is coming out next year, and is available for Developer Preview download now – http://www.microsoft.com/download/en/details.aspx?id=27539. It has the new Metro UI, and they seem to have really zero’d in on Agile, rather than adapting what was a traditional project management environment, so I will wait and see if it lives up to the promise. But for now, Agile Zen is working out great for us.