Pivot to project success

25 November 2016

Here at Big Blue Door we work in an agile way and since inception have been using Pivotal Tracker as a way of managing projects internally with our dev team, and working collaboratively with clients. Pivotal as a system has undergone a huge number of changes in the last few years and in this post we take a look at a few of the updates we’ve found particularly useful.

Pivotal Tracker - a quick intro

But first a quick reminder for those you who don't use the system what Pivotal is. Pivotal Tracker is a software as a solution service, which allows teams to manage software projects in a flexible way. It’s system allows an easy overview of what ‘stories’ (think ‘tickets’ or ‘items’) you have that are open, in the backlog (coming next) or in the icebox (not active, but something you’re considering in the future). Stories have ‘requesters’ who draft them; ‘owners’ who are assigned the work (normally a developer) and can then be assigned points based on the estimated effort required to deliver the work.

Here’s the company overview of what it’s all about:

With a shared view of team priorities, a process that fosters collaboration, and dynamic tools to analyze progress, your team will deliver more frequently and consistently. The system provides a clear overview of development items and allows project managers to quickly see the status of all items across individual projects and multiple clients at once.

Things we love as PM’s

As a PM there are a number of features I find particularly useful, some new, some old, including:

  1. Workspaces

The workspaces feature allows you to create a personalised view across all of your pivotal projects at once. You can view a set of grouped projects, a number of projects from across the same client, or all projects from across your entire clientbase at once.

If you’ve been away from the office for a few days and need to quickly catch up on things this helicopter view is priceless. You’ll be back up to speed in no-time.

Pivotal workspace

  1. Epics

Epics allow you to group a set of development stories into a common group so that you can easily track their progress together. If you are working on a large feature for a project, let’s say a new API integration, you can easily pull these different stories together. Epics also allow you as a PM to include a detailed explanation for the dev team as part of the overall epic - this might include details about the repo, feature branch, deadlines and so on.

  1. Analytics - let the data tell the story

The analytics function across pivotal launched earlier this year and has improved dramatically ever since. This feature now automatically tracks sprint velocity for you and then creates burndown charts, project trends and cumulative flow - all of which can help you optimise work across your team and see how you are improving as a group. We find that data from this section is really useful when completing sprint reviews and retrospectives with clients.
There’s a wealth of data here so dive in and find out what’s useful to you.
Pivotal analytics
  1. Integrations

Pivotal offers a comprehensive range of API integrations so that you can hook the service up to other applications you use within your workflow. Here at Big Blue Door we integrate Pivotal with GitHub, Slack and Zapier. This allows us to ensure that all commits within Git are referenced through Pivotal and use the unique story ID for future reference. Alerts and labels such as ‘Tested on dev’ are used so that the project management team is notified via Slack (as well as email) when a story is ready for review.

And Zapier allows us to add stories to Pivotal via Gmail by simply adding a label to the email in question. This integration is really helpful when a client emails across details that need to be captured in the story for the dev. Simply add a label, wait for the integration to run, and then all the email detail (title, descriptions etc) is added automatically to pivotal. Now as a PM you just have to assign the story and you’re away - a huge time saver all round!

  1. Markdown

Markdown support for pivotal has been in place since launch but we’ve started using this far more recently. We now have a standard approach for all stories, whereby as well as the traditional user story and ACs (Acceptance Criteria), we now also add in the relevant repo and a clear section for screenshots and notes. The different sections that markdown supports means that stories are far easier for all parties to read and action. We’re finding far less rejections as a result of this standard being implemented across the team.

Pivotal markdown

  1. Release stories

Pivotal now includes release stories so that you can schedule and track deployments to your live environment. The release story allows you to add in the date of the release, and we now use the Tasks section to highlight all stories that are being included within that release, as well as any manual instructions. After a release we then complete checks against each story highlighted in the tasks section and mark these as complete if they pass our test plans.

Pivotal release story

  1. Transparency

Probably the best principle about Pivotal is that your team's progress is shared across everyone, including clients if you wish (and we do), so that there are no more surprises in terms of progress. Everyone can see what is being worked on, who’s responsible for what, and what’s coming next. Ideal.

Projects can even be made completely public, as championed by the Government Digital Service e.g. https://www.pivotaltracker.com/n/projects/367813


Having used a number of different services over the years including Bugzilla & Trello, I’d really recommend giving Pivotal Tracker a go - the service is superb and it’s always developing.

The only gripe we’ve got in the office right now is that the Android app is only in beta, but I'm sure that will be updated soon.