Providers of tools to facilitate Scrum in agile processes will readily admit that software developers don’t necessarily need specific tools to do Scrum effectively. But tool providers agree that a good tool can ease Scrum adoption, and automate and simplify the Scrum process.
“If you have a co-located team, start with the simplest tools such as a whiteboard and sticky notes. That way you can focus on the process itself, as these simplest of tools encourage communication and creativity,” TargetProcess CEO Michael Dubakov said.
“Smaller teams certainly don’t need a Scrum tool,” Atlassian’s CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes said. “But the key reason to use a tool is that a tool can ease your Scrum adoption. It automates and simplifies manual Scrum processes, allowing the team to focus on their agile transformation.”
“Most agile gurus would say you don’t need tools, you just need a paper and a pencil and a whiteboard,” said Laszlo Szalvay, VP of CollabNet’s Scrum Business Line. “But here’s my take on it: You can do that with one team, maybe two teams, max three teams. But guess what? When I go into a large company that has 10,000 software developers, not so much. And when their 10,000 software developers are split across 17 locations, good luck. That’s when you need a tool.”
Large or distributed teams need something unified in which to store and organize all their data, plan sprints, do trending and analysis, and track progress. With increasing proportions of the workforce working from home, as well as the further geographic dispersal of teams, an effective, Web-based Scrum tool becomes absolutely essential.
And as teams mature further in their Scrum approaches, they tend to find a tool essential for other reasons. “Managing the ordered backlog of work to be done in the future becomes impossible as the number of user stories grows and input from other individuals needs to be captured,” Cannon-Brookes said.
During sprints, teams find it hard to manage the work in-flight, and they need a way to share their progress with other people in the organization. Over time, keeping track of the results of particular sprints and the amount of work being completed from sprint to sprint becomes onerous.
“Tools mitigate these problems,” Cannon-Brookes said. “One of the major reasons a Scrum tool is so important in today’s world is the change in workplace arrangements. Recent statistics show that less than 30% of teams are completely co-located. This means that physical wallboards and standup meetings are either much less valuable or simply ineffective.”
How to select a Scrum tool
When a company is selecting a Scrum tool, there are certain features they should look for. “When Scrum teams first start out, they should look for a tool that directly supports the most common Scrum best practices: one that is easy for the team to adopt and use,” Cannon-Brookes said.
“At adoption time, simplicity is key because you don’t want difficulties with the tool causing the team to lose faith. But you need to look a bit further than that, because once you’re over the hurdle of adoption, your needs change.”
For example, in a new Scrum project, the work to be done is simply shown as a list of features or user stories. But as time goes on, the list grows and the tool needs to help to make it manageable. The team’s requirements from there continue to grow because Scrum emphasizes continuous improvement and, as a result, the team is constantly looking for ways to do things more effectively.
“This naturally leads teams to look for features such as a suite that can seamlessly support continuous integration, a tool that can be directly accessed by customers to log feedback or problems, and even a tool that can directly capture screenshots and annotations while stakeholders are adding items to the backlog,” Cannon-Brookes said.
The tool should also be adaptable. “Too often agile tools are very restrictive,” TargetProcess’ Dubakov said. “A good agile tool should adapt to various projects and needs. It should not force you to change development processes. It should be easy to use. People don’t like to spend time on tools; they want to spend time on real work. The tool should be integrated to replace several existing tools such as bug tracking and time tracking.”
There are many tools on the market, so choose carefully. No tool is perfect; you may have unique requirements. There are tools that work great for small and medium companies, while others work better for large, enterprise-wide adoption. Some good advice is to try some tools and decide which one works best for you. Here’s a closer look at some Scrum tools currently available.
OnTime Scrum is geared toward managing the team—all the tasks and user stories that they need to get done, and monitoring that with burndown charts and dashboards, said Hamid Shojaee, CEO of Axosoft. OnTime Scrum is about the tasks that you want to get done in a given product, the features that you want to put in it, or the bugs that it has.
The big differentiator between OnTime Scrum and most of the competing tools is in the user experience. “We very much focus on the user experience, with an intuitive user interface that is very crisp and fast and which makes sense,” Shojaee said. “OnTime Scrum is simpler than other tools, it’s more to the point, and very, very fast. It doesn’t waste your time.”
The most productive thing that dev teams can be doing is writing code, so Axosoft wants them to be spending as little time in OnTime Scrum as possible so that they can stay focused on writing that code. “Dev teams can be in and out of OnTime Scrum very quickly, and so they’re more likely to actually use the product. Then management can get the reports and information and dashboards that they want out of the product,” Shojaee said. “In fact, the top three things about our tool that makes it attractive is that it’s fast, intuitive and has a great management dashboard.”
In OnTime Scrum, you can set up security roles so that people can know everything there is to know about their own project, or about everything company-wide. This is one of those aspects that set enterprise-capable tools apart from non-enterprise tools. “There are a few tools that have come out lately that are just very much geared toward very small teams—with just four or five or 10 users,” said Shojaee. “In those cases, those tools don’t really worry too much about security. But our tool is capable of defining hierarchies; you can define security as deep as you want.
“We have a development dashboard, and what this dashboard does for the executive or management of the company that’s using our product is it gives them the ability to see everything that is going on in their development environment at a glance. For each day, the idea is that, if you’re tracking how much of that product or version or sprint remains, over time you can see that trend. And that trend is what helps you determine what your projected ship date is going to be.”
The thing that makes Axosoft’s product a Scrum-focused tool is that it makes it very easy to manage product backlogs. “These are some of the key elements that Scrum teams need: They need a way to manage their product backlog, which is nothing more than a list of features that they want to get done in their product sometime in the future,” Shojaee said. “They also need a way to manage their release backlog or sprint backlog: the stuff they want to get done for a particular release.”
OnTime Scrum allows teams to see burn-down charts not only for one sprint, but also for the overall project. “Our tool can consolidate it for the entire version and can show Scrum teams what all the sprints in the versions are doing,” Shojaee said.
GreenHopper has been available since 2008. The company has made new features available to customers as they are built, releasing new versions every two weeks—an agile product being built by an agile development team, using Scrum, said Cannon-Brookes.
The tool is integrated with the JIRA issue tracker and the whole Atlassian ecosystem. This means that it can easily support complex workflows, wiki-based documentation, continuous integration, source-code reviews, and publicly submitted feedback and bugs.
GreenHopper makes Scrum administration simple. Developers can keep items up to date, and product owners can maintain large backlogs with ease. This is important for Scrum to gain traction; the maintenance overhead can sometimes overwhelm teams.
GreenHopper helps new teams as they develop their methodology. They can start simply, with basic stories, story point estimations and sprints. As they develop, they can add sub-task estimation, workflows, swim lanes and velocity charts. They can then get as complex as they would like by drawing on Kanban-style functionality, using the JIRA query language to slice and dice information, and using JIRA release-management functionality.
Atlassian’s Scrum tool is very configurable and is suitable for large-enterprise Scrum teams. It includes custom fields, issue-level security, role-based security, and configurable and enforceable workflows.
Cannon-Brookes said the GreenHopper tool started out specifically designed for Scrum, but has expanded over the years to support the needs of all sorts of agile teams, including Kanban, eXtreme Programming (XP) and custom agile methodologies.
GreenHopper is used by more than 6,000 enterprise customers and has more than 650,000 users. Atlassian has everything from small teams on its “10-user-for-$10” starter license through to its enterprise customers with tens of thousands of developers. It has customers in every industry, including finance, IT, telecommunications, manufacturing and scientific research.
“ScrumWorks is our Scrum project-management tool; it was built for Scrum,” said Laszlo Szalvay, VP of Scrum for CollabNet. “ScrumWorks is where you plan the work and TeamForce is where you do the work. The two products work in collaboration. Our ScrumWorks tool supports doing Scrum by the book, and if you want to make changes, depending on how much you want to tweak it, our tool works very well with that.”
Some key features that help differentiate CollabNet’s Scrum tools from the others in the market are their usability and scalability. “If you are a very large company and you’re thinking about putting five or 10 or 20,000 people on a product, scalability has to be a feature in your Scrum tool,” Szalvay said. “I think a lot of the vendors that are in our space have great small- and medium-business niche markets, but they haven’t figured out yet how to support big customers.”
Another reason to think about CollabNet’s Scrum tools, according to Szalvay, comes from looking at it from a historical perspective. CollabNet was founded by Tim O’Reilly and Brian Behlendorf (cofounder of the Apache project). Bill Portelli joined CollabNet as its founding CEO and still holds that position.
“Our founder Brian Behlendorf and our CEO Bill Portelli were trying to solve the problem of ‘How do you take people who are very much into the open-source way of thinking and open-source way of development and apply that into a corporate environment?’ ” Szalvay said. “And what I mean by that is, how can you take a highly motivated, distributed workforce from around the world and have them work collaboratively on projects? We as a company have that experience.”
That was the whole origin of CollabNet, according to Szalvay: distributed, large development. “I’m currently working with a customer who has locations in Malaysia, in Germany, in Prague, in the Czech Republic and in Arizona,” he said. “So, how do they work together? How do they select a Scrum tool that will allow them to work together and help them solve the problems that they’ve been trying to solve for many years? These are the types of things that we are contemplating, and these are the types of features that we’re building in our Scrum tools. That’s why I think people choose our Scrum tools. It’s in our DNA.”
CollabNet’s Scrum tools are used by customers within various sectors, including financial, logistics, government and systems integrators.
Rally has offered its agile tools for nine years. Generally speaking, Rally’s tools are a general agile solution, but they do have multi-process agile support, so they support Scrum, Kanban and high-assurance agile solutions.
If a company is already using Rally to do an agile process such as Kanban, but then it decides to have only some teams starting Scrum, it can do this with the existing tools. “This is exactly one of the unique benefits of our tools,” said Todd Olson, VP of Products at Rally.
“You can have five teams doing Scrum and five teams doing Kanban. But here’s the interesting thing: They can be working on the same product and see rollup status across different, heterogeneous processes. So each team can pick the process that best suits their needs, and Rally will provide the management layer on top of that to provide visibility and transparency across those teams collaborating.”
There are four features that set Rally’s tools apart from other tools, Olson said. The first is that the tools are designed for the enterprise. “Our tools do support large enterprises, so that means if a company is doing a large, coordinated agile release, where thousands of people are working on the same software release, our tools are really good in those scenarios. In those cases, you could have 15 or 20 backlogs all coordinated with different iteration schedules all rolling off, giving unique statuses. We’re designed for the enterprise, and I think that’s an absolute key characteristic of our tools.”
The second thing is that they are a very broad solution. “Whereas a lot of Scrum solutions or agile tools will have just one small piece of capability, we do everything from idea management (which helps teams to collect ideas to build—essentially, pre-backlog work or pre-requirements) to integrating testing early and often as a process. So we have considerably broader solutions than most, and I think that’s a key differentiator for us,” said Olson.
The third key characteristic of Rally’s tools is that they are cloud-based. “We’re primarily delivering 100% Web-based software as a service—that’s unique,” Olson said. “That means that within minutes you can get up and running on your Scrum solution; you don’t have to download something and have a server set aside. You can basically get an e-mail from us and be up and running immediately.”
Finally, Rally’s tools were designed from the ground up with agile. “This means we have built coaching and best practices into the tools,” Olson said. “So, throughout the tools, we have areas that can help guide and coach teams toward not only how to use the tools, but how to best implement agile practices as a company.”
It’s not about just buying an agile tool; it’s about getting help and encouragement to promote best practices on how to transform your organization. “The goal is about getting your organization better, not just providing the tool to manage things,” Olson said. “So the tool needs to help support the greater picture.”
Rally’s agile tools are used by customers within multiple industries including the medical, healthcare, technology, communications and retail sectors.
The TargetProcess tool supports Scrum, as well as XP, Kanban and other iterative processes, said Dubakov. Its Scrum tool supports either full Scrum environments or hybrid ones. For example, you can run Scrum-ban (a combo of Scrum and Kanban).
However, there is no waterfall support in TargetProcess. The company believes that waterfall is just not good for software projects.
One important feature that helps differentiate the TargetProcess Scrum tool from the others in the market is its adaptability. You can create a different process for every project inside TargetProcess. According to the company, this is a unique feature that makes TargetProcess flexible. “Imagine that you have 10 teams that all work differently. You can easily support this complex case in TargetProcess,” Dubakov said.
Another feature that differentiates TargetProcess is its usability. TargetProcess is a powerful tool, but not very complex. Many of the company’s customers selected TargetProcess because of its simplicity. Also, there are some unique reporting capabilities and integration options within TargetProcess, according to Dubakov.
The tool helps Scrum teams become more productive, more effective and more agile by providing a single point of access to all project data. This includes project planning and tracking, bug tracking, time tracking, and test management.
“You have everything in a single tool,” said Dubakov. “You don’t have to spend much time inside the tool; for example, developers can update statuses with commit messages. A RESTful API and mashups provide good integration options, so you can easily build TargetProcess into your unique development environment. The tool’s main benefits are its transparency, that it helps with development teams’ coordination, and that it saves development teams time.”
TargetProcess has more than 1,000 customers of all sizes. Typically, these are companies with departments or teams consisting of 20 to 50 people, and include banks, ISVs, outsourcing firms, media companies and retailers. “It seems all companies that have internal software development departments are heading toward agile these days,” Dubakov said.
The Mingle tool is not made specifically for Scrum, although it does support Scrum teams. “We have many teams practicing Scrum that use Mingle,” said Scott Turnquest, delivery manager at ThoughtWorks Studios. “But I think we would just call it generally an agile project-management tool that tries to put a lot of focus on team collaboration. I think that’s probably a fair description of what Mingle is.”
Some of the differentiators for the Mingle tool would largely be focused around the concept of adaptability. They allow dev teams to change their process in the tool. “We support a host of different ways of working. All of the things that we support are informed by agile principles, and so we are fairly adaptable,” he said.
“As teams grow, or as they begin to tweak their process in a way that’s still aligning with agile principles, our tool supports that. For example, if your workflow needs to be customized, if you have different steps in your workflow, you can change that in the tool.”
Collaboration is also a focal point for Mingle. “We make conversations a focus as a way to drive collaboration—both in the digital space but, more importantly, in the physical world, because that’s where you get the most value out of collaboration,” Turnquest said.
The Murmur feature within Mingle helps to capture conversations that happen around a story. “Those conversations can then be broadcast and shared with everyone on the team, so they just get a bit more context about what’s going on—especially about the requirements and the tasks that they are working on,” Turnquest said.
A relatively new feature in Mingle is its forecasting charts, which helps teams based on their performance. This is one of the key things that agile teams estimate, but a lot of times they miss their estimates as they’re learning how to do agile.
“We developed a forecasting chart that shows teams the percentage of probability of where they’ll finish a particular sprint or where they’ll finish a release,” Turnquest said. “This is a new feature that I don’t think anyone’s ever done before.”
One thing that ThoughtWorks Studios is trying to do with its charts is to capture some of the leading-edge thought that exists out in the world—such as forecasting—and bring it back into its tool. “Forecasting is a tough nut to crack, to be honest, and we’ve put a lot of thought behind it,” Turnquest said. “What we do is still a simple take on it, but it is at least something we think is important as a conversation starter. So it helps teams have conversations with their stakeholders around common topics such as scope management.”
Mingle is used by small businesses with a few users on each team, to large companies with 1,000 or more users. Customers include companies in the media, healthcare, retail, telecommunications and finance sectors.
VersionOne is available in four different editions: Team, Catalyst, Enterprise and Ultimate. If you’re a small business, you can use the Team or Catalyst editions, and you can use the Enterprise and Ultimate editions if you’re a large company. All of the editions support Scrum.
Its tools have an agile framework with a Scrum template, so if you click on the Scrum template, it sets things up a certain way for you. “The Scrum template uses certain terminology, it tracks things a little bit differently, and it highlights a few more metrics,” said Robert Holler, CEO of VersionOne. “It’s tailored specifically for Scrum, but we’ve got this overall agile framework from which you can select Scrum or XP. We support multiple methodologies. The Enterprise and Ultimate editions have those templates.”
VersionOne tries to give dev teams a great starting point in that, once they get started with them, they can grow with them and scale with them over time. Teams can start with the Team or Catalyst edition, and when they’re ready to scale or take on more projects, iteration schedules and reporting, all they have to do is click an upgrade button and they can move to the edition that supports larger projects.
“You can tailor the terminology and the tracking and the workflows within the product. The template is nothing more than a starting point. Scrum uses, for example, the term backlog; it has burndowns; it has a specific flow. So what you’re really doing is saying, ‘Here’s my starting point,’ yet you can actually go in and customize that template to adapt it to whatever you want to do. The customizable template is a bit of a kick-start to get you going with a specific methodology and terminology,” Holler said.
One feature that differentiates VersionOne’s tools from the others is the breadth of the footprint of the product line. “It’s stories and defects and road maps and idea management, all wrapped into a single tool. Very often you’re going to find a lot of tools out there that do a few of those things but not all of those things,” Holler said.
Where they differentiate from a lot of starter or low-end tools is their inherent support of scaling agile. “So, this means lots of teams and lots of projects and being able to support distributed sites through a Web-based interface and built-in collaboration tools and things like that,” Holler said.
VersionOne also offers something it refers to as “agile your way.” “It’s the ability to take our tool and, as opposed to accepting a one-size-fits-all approach to agile, you can tailor the terminology within the tool,” said Holler. “So whether you call something a feature or a story or a requirement, it doesn’t matter to us. You can go in and tailor those terms. It updates your terminology, your workflow, and your tracking to support the way that you do agile—even on a project-by-project basis.”
VersionOne’s Scrum tool helps teams become more agile and more productive because it helps dev teams reinforce the Scrum process and helps them know what happens next. “Our user interface is set up to walk them through the Scrum process and, to some degree, it then gets out of their way,” Holler said.
According to him, the tool’s Task board feature is the single most popular thing about it. “Using the Task board, developers only need to go into our tool a couple of minutes a day to make sure that they have gotten things up to date—and then the tool does all the reporting and rollups from there. So we provide the framework, give teams the ability to do Scrum, and make it pretty transparent so they don’t have to live inside the tool,” he said.
The Scrum decision
One of the key predicators of success with Scrum is a commitment to adoption and the principles of the process throughout the organization—especially with executive stakeholders. There really needs to be a willingness to make a change and a recognition that Scrum is a viable option, even though it will require significant organizational change. There also needs to be an understanding that Scrum is not a magic bullet; it can work magic but only if the ground rules are established and the change is managed well.
“But I think we should reverse this question,” Atlassian CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes said. “Instead we should ask, ‘Why are we not doing Scrum?’ The evidence of success is there, and in today’s world, who wouldn’t want to achieve better outcomes with the same number of people? If it’s because the organization is resistant to change, then it’s important to understand that competitors using Scrum will gain a competitive advantage that makes that sort of paralysis dangerous. If it is because Scrum is complex and the adoption process seems onerous, then I’d recommend looking at the tools that can help.”
Scrum fails if there is no support from C-level people. “Business should understand really well what Scrum is all about,” TargetProcess CEO Michael Dubakov warns. “Good questions for companies to ask themselves are, ‘Who will play the Product Owner role? Do we have such a person? Can we really delegate all technical decisions to a team? Are we ready to trust developers?’ Scrum adoption requires a shift in a mindset. And this is not a simple switch. It may take years to change company culture. Scrum does not work in complicated structures filled with political games and stupid rules.”