5 Lessons from the CTO of Gist.com

Steve Newman GistRecently, we spoke with Steve Newman, Chief Technology Officer of Gist.com about how they’ve been using LiquidPlanner to improve their Agile software development process. Like many of our customers, Gist plans their development cycles in sprints, enabling them to iterate faster and keep up with customer demand for new features. One of the hallmark traits of agile is the idea that ‘people and process’ trump ‘software and tools’. While we agree with this axiom in principal, we also believe that the right tools can in fact significantly improve Agile methodologies. But don’t take our word for it, let’s hear what Steve has to say on the topic!

1. LP: How did you begin using LiquidPlanner as part of your Agile process?

SN: We’ve been around for a couple years now as a company. Agile has always been in our DNA.  Our sprints are roughly two to three weeks in duration and we push to our production environment at about the same rate. We’ve trialed many different tools and techniques and have always been on the lookout for something that could give us the strength of a powerful tool but still be really lightweight. Both in terms of how we can integrate it into our process, the time involved, using the tool, and of course, managing the data in the tool. Ultimately we converged on LiquidPlanner and today it’s our primary tool for managing our sprint process.

2. LP: Post-it Notes have become synonymous with Agile. If I came into your office would I still see colorful sticky notes posted everywhere?

SN: Definitely not! The time of the stickies has come and gone. We used a number of different tools and some of them were helpful in managing the backlog and organizing our roadmap. In some instances, they did a good job and in some cases, not so great. And yet we always seemed to revert back to stickies on the wall because we could quickly throw up the feature ideas and then prioritize and stack rank them. However, now we manage our entire backlog in LiquidPlanner. There are a number of benefits to doing it this way. LiquidPlanner has strong prioritization and organization capabilities. And of course if you’re doing that upstream in the backlog — when you get to a sprint where you want to take on some of this stuff — it’s a pretty simple task of just moving it from a backlog into the sprint and the schedule automatically adjusts, letting us know what’s realistic in terms of deliverables for each sprint.

3. LP: What about ranged estimates? How do they work in your Agile process? And did it take some getting used to for the developers?

SN: Yes and no. The reality of task estimation is that there is always a best-case estimate and a worst-case estimate. But for many people, when they translate that into a tool, they tend to think of it as a singular estimate. That’s how all the tools out there work. So to have something that really does map to reality — and then uses that reality to help us better model where we’re at in the sprint and what our probability is for all coming together for deployment — it’s incredibly helpful. While it took a little bit of time to get used to, it feels pretty natural now because it’s really the way people think about estimates.

4. LP: Did you select LiquidPlanner for its Agile capabilities or was it just gravy?

SN: Yes, we evaluated LiquidPlanner specifically for its Agile capabilities. Initially, we implemented it in a phased manner because we’d been burned before and there had been some rough feelings around here around using yet another tool. We first introduced LiquidPlanner as a way to manage our backlog. So basically we replaced the stickies with LiquidPlanner. And then as we grew more comfortable with LiquidPlanner as a means to manage our pipeline and backlog, we began using it to manage the tail-end of our sprint (the testing function). Again, it was a small group. We were able to put all the testing activities in, and use that to get familiar and comfortable with how to manage tasks, how to estimate, and how to identify the work completed, and also use some of the reports. And once we grew familiar with tool and we could see it was providing value and utility for either end of our process, that’s when we introduced it to the engineering team.  It took a little bit of time to get adoption, little bit of time to get the configuration of the tool against our core Sprint process, but we were successful in that deployment. Now we use it throughout our entire process.

5. LP: What are the most important benefits that have been afforded by LiquidPlanner in your Agile process?

SN: The big thing is that LiquidPlanner covers a wide swath of our process. So it really does a nice job of supporting our backlog, supporting our sprint planning, and supporting our sprint process as a whole. So it’s a single tool that serves us very well in a large portion of our work here. The other thing is that we were able to adopt it in a manner that was comfortable for us – like I said, we implemented it first for backlog, second for managing our testing activities, and thirdly for managing all of our development activities. So it scaled up very nicely for us and allowed us to become comfortable with it and at the end of the day if the developers are not behind the tool, doesn’t matter how good the tool is, they’re not going to use it. So I allowed us to introduce it to the organization in a way where we could keep it checked at every point, every step of the way, and ultimately we adopted it fully. And again lastly I’ll say that there are different ways you can use the tool and for some engineers they like all the bells and whistles while others use it to define their tasks, enter their estimates, and that’s about it. So it’s flexible from one individual to the next. It’s been a great tool for us and we’re thrilled with how well it’s worked out.

Does your organization use LiquidPlanner for Agile? If so, let us know and we’ll feature you next on our blog!

Agile Development Tools Q&A was last modified: September 20th, 2010 by Liz Pearce