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Our top 5 project management tools

Benjamin wrote this on Aug. 22, 2013

Project management tools

As a tech startup, we find ourselves naturally drawn towards new and exciting online tools - and in particular those of the project management variety!

There’s something quite gorgeous and satisfying about combining, presenting and digesting the data that drives your business all in one place. This is, for the most part, what the best of the project management apps and tools try to achieve. They want you to trust their system enough that you’ll funnel all of your business and project data into it and then share it with those that need to see or interact with it.

But which ones are the best? Well that, i’m afraid is just too ambiguous a question to answer as we all need very different things from a project management tool. So instead, what i’ll do is talk about the top 5 project management tools that we’re using right now, and why. Hopefully this will make it more relevant as well as add some context around why we like what we like.

Pivotal Tracker

Updatey.com is a tech startup and so it’s critical that we’re able to effectively manage development workloads and any bugs that crop up. Pivotal Tracker is fantastic at this. It provides an intuitive interface with rich drag and drop capabilities.

When you first start using Pivotal Tracker, you’ll notice that they encourage you to work within the confines of a particular structure - that of an agile project management approach. In practice, this essentially means that you’re doing two key things:

  1. Separating your tasks into one of 3 lists:

    The ‘icebox’ list - new tasks that have not yet been assigned or properly defined should go here.

    The ‘backlog’ list - once a task is effectively ‘ready’ to be worked on (but not yet scheduled in) it should go here.

    The ‘current’ list - tasks automatically fall into this list when you / your team has the capacity to work on them (more on this below).

  2. Work is then sectioned into ‘sprints’:
    In the Agile world, we like to work fairly rapidly but in short, precise bursts. This helps keep teams focused and goals achievable. A sprint is simply the word given to a scheduled ‘burst’ of work. Typically here at Updatey, we like to work with sprints lasting 2 weeks. This means that every 2 weeks we’re completing blocks of work and then moving onto the next one. Pivotal Tracker does a lot to help with this work-flow by automatically bunching workloads into sprints. Crucially though (and rather interestingly), Pivotal Tracker will try and work out what your teams actual work capacity is - so to start with, it might see that you’re able to complete X tasks within a week and thus, it knows how many tasks to put into your current list. As your team’s workload expands, so does the breadth of your current list.

In short - we love Pivotal Tracker and everything it represents. Highly, highly recommended!

Trello

Trello is an interesting and fairly recent entrant to the scene. But don’t let that put you off as it’s building massive praise and traction within the community. On the face of it, Trello may appear to be fairly similar to Pivotal Tracker, in that it works from a similar visual layout - where tasks are stacked into columns. However, in our minds at-least, where Trello differs is that the nature of the tasks you’ll add to Trello are typically going to be quite different to those that you’d add to Pivotal Tracker (more of this in a minute). Trello also offers much more flexibility with regards to the lists of tasks you work with. This might seem like a subtle difference, but this has quite a big impact on the way you approach and think about where Trello fits into your business’ operations.

Due to Trello’s flexibility (i.e. you can create as many lists as you want and in any order), you’ll find people using the system in a myriad of ways. For us, we tend to use Trello for the high-level strategic planning. For example, as we ramp up and prepare for the beta launch of Updatey.com, it’s important that we’re able to easily track and communicate some of the higher-level tasks, such as marketing, SEO, PR etc. Trello is great for this - you can add new tasks and assign them to members within your team.

If you’re a non technical team, or have higher level strategies to plan, delegate, communicate around and manage - then Trello could be just what you’re looking for.

TeamBox

We’ve found TeamBox to be a solid staple over the years, albeit one that has quite a number of flaws in our mind. Unlike Trello and Pivotal Tracker, TeamBox doesn't care about solving one specific problem. Instead, TeamBox most definitely represents one of those ‘all in one’ project management tools.

On balance, this is no bad thing as it means that teams are able to collect, communicate and manage a lot of things all under one roof (such as tasks, notes, calendars, events, files and conversations). Each of these aspects of the system is quite nicely thought out, but in truth - neither one of them is as good as the best ‘single purpose’ app out there (that is to say, an app that attempts to solve that one thing - such as tasks, like Pivotal Tracker does).

Due to this, we find our use of TeamBox dwindling as each day goes by; but for some reason we paradoxically also find ourselves attracted back to it for some reason or another. It’s a part of our team’s suite of tools therefore - but for how much longer? Time will only tell!

Updatey

Updatey.com represents something a little different from the above project management tools I’ve just described. Updatey is, in many ways, far simpler. As a disclaimer (and in case you didn’t already know), Updatey.com is our own product and one we’re in the process of launching. However, it already has a powerful and important role as one of our project management tools and so i’ll describe a little bit about how it helps us in our situation.

Whether you’re managing a project yourself, working on it as a developer, a marketing executive, an investor or any other type of project stakeholder; we’ve found that one of the most frequently asked questions is ‘where are we exactly with project X?’ and ‘when are we due to reach milestone Y or complete the project?’. Updatey exists to answer this very question. Updatey doesn't care about managing tasks and assigning them to people, it doesn't care about sprints and it definitely doesn't care about ‘how’ you work (Agile or otherwise). All Updatey cares about, is ensuring that you’re able to present in a clear, concise and engaging way exactly where you are in the overall timeline of a project, what has been achieved so far and what still remains to do.

We are using a pre-beta version of Updatey here internally already and we’re already finding it incredibly useful for helping us communicate project statuses and activity with our wider team, investors and other various stakeholders.

Updatey.com will soon open its doors to beta testers. If you’d like to be one of the first to give Updatey a spin, please head over to our home page and register your email address.

Hackpad

Continuing on the theme of simplicity; we couldn't write an article like this without mentioning our good friend Hackpad. Hackpad is essentially on online wiki, but it really shines when working in collaboration mode. Multiple people can contribute to a document at the same time and Hackpad knows how to deal with the various edits taking place. It’s gorgeous and highly effective, yet simple on the face of it.

Project management isn't just about communicating lists of tasks or the status of a project, but also about communicating ideas and raw, native thoughts. Hackpad is just great at providing an environment for raw thoughts to be jotted down, collaborated on and then refined. As project management tools go, Hackpad is definitely a big part of how we manage the ideas that drive our various projects.

Conclusion

Simplicity is often key (or certainly is as far as we’re concerned). All in one ‘suits’ like TeamBox, whilst powerful in their own right, are either going to have to make way for the leaner and more focused competitors or innovate massively to ensure that each of its facets are sufficiently polished to ensure that the sum of the parts continues to be better (or at least equal) to the whole.