OmbuLabs Blog

The Lean Software Boutique

How we use Pivotal Tracker at Ombu Labs

We tend to use GitHub for everything at Ombu Labs, but sometimes our clients prefer Pivotal Tracker. We have no problem with Pivotal Tracker, we just like to keep everything in one place, that is why we prefer GitHub for everything.

There are many things that are easier with Pivotal Tracker, as long as you are using it the right way. Some of its features are very useful for agile teams like ours. This is how we like to use it to ship value with every sprint and keep track of our velocity.

Step 1: Filing user stories

Every single thing has to be tracked according to the type of story. Most of the user stories are either features or bugs, although sometimes there will be chores to be done. If a chore reoccurs many times, then it's probably time to write a feature to reduce the time spent completing that chore.

Step 2: Describing user stories

Every user story should be a simple description of a feature:

As a < type of user >, I want < some goal > so that < some business goal >.

The description of the user story should be very clear about the expected outcome. This will explain what is the exit criteria for the story. It is very helpful for designers and developers to understand what needs to happen for a user to be happy with the feature.

This is an example from one of our recent projects (https://audit.fastruby.io/):

As a user I want to submit my Gemfile.lock
so that I can see an audit analysis of its vulnerabilities.

Example of a simple user story

If the client requested this feature, you should add them as the Requester of the story. If it was you, then you can add yourself to it.

Step 3: Estimating user stories

Before you start working on a user story, you will need to estimate it. You can estimate it with 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, or 8 points. We prefer to use a Fibonacci sequence to estimate stories.

If a story is more complicated than 8 points, you should break it down in two or more stories. When you estimate, you must remember that you are estimating complexity, not hours. Different developers might take different amount of time in completing that story, so we shouldn't estimate hours.

For the example we mentioned before, we estimate that that story has 3 points of complexity.

State of a simple user story before you estimate it

Story points are not hours. Given a user story that has 3 story points of complexity, a Senior Developer might take 2 hours shipping it, a Junior Developer might take 5 hours shipping it.

Step 4: Starting and finishing user stories

You should always pick the first unassigned story from the top of the backlog. If the first story is assigned to someone, you may check with them if they need your help with it.

State of a user story after you have estimated it

Once you start a story, the clock starts ticking on that story. You should try to finish it as soon as possible.

When the time comes and you're done working on the code and tests for that story, you will submit a pull request and attach it to the user story. At that point, you can click the Finish button.

State of a user story after you finish it

Step 5: Delivering a user story

When your pull request has been approved by a code reviewer, you or the reviewer can merge this pull request and deploy it. If the code doesn't get deployed automatically (it should!), you should deploy it to staging so that the Requester can accept or reject the implementation.

Before you click Deliver you should perform a quick smoke test to make sure that your changes were successfully deployed to the staging environment.

After that, you can go ahead and Deliver the user story. This will move the story to an Accept/Reject state:

State of a user story after you finish it

Step 6: Accepting or rejecting a user story

If the requester approves the story, they will mark it as accepted. No more work is necessary in this user story. Great!

If they reject the story, they should provide a detailed description about the rejection. If you were the requester you can ask yourself this question to describe the problem/s:

  • What did you expect and what did actually happen?
  • What cases worked and what cases didn't work as expected?
  • Was the interface clear enough to understand what was going on?
  • Did you test many cases and it failed with an edge case?

State of a user story after you deliver it

If possible, describe the exact scenario and steps that you took to find a problem with the user story. If you think that adding a screenshot will help, you should add it as a comment after you reject the story.

Step 7: Restarting a rejected user story

There will be times when your implementation is not good enough. It may fall short in terms of usability, performance, or behavior. The good news is that our process works. Someone verified a feature you implemented and found issues with the implementation.

When the time comes, you will find a user story in this state:

State of a user story after someone rejects it

You can simply restart the user story and resume working on it. If you need to submit another pull request to patch the feature, you can continue with step 4.

Conclusion

Pivotal Tracker provides a great way to track team velocity. This helps in determining when a big feature will be shipped. As much as we like to use GitHub for everything, Pivotal Tracker integrates nicely with them (they recently launched this integration!) which improves traceability from feature to implementation.

It is not our first choice when it comes to project management tools, but we can adapt to our client's tools and thrive using it. Pivotal Tracker is more advanced than GitHub Projects and it provides great features for managing your user stories, backlog, icebox, and team velocity.

At Ombu Labs we like to invite all stakeholders to our project management tools. I like how Pivotal Tracker makes it easy to communicate that some stories will be delivered in this sprint and some will have to wait until the next sprint. It is a great way to manage expectations.