PivotalTracker: The Simple Steps To Start a New Project

PivotalTracker is a great tool for organizing your work. No matter whether you work mainly in software development, operations, or in a shared DevOps environment, PivotalTracker keeps you up to the task. Over the last couple of years using it, we’ve seen some patterns for setting up projects and organizing stories with tags.

Start And Configure a New Project

Since PivotalTracker is completely free, there’s no obstacle to starting a new project any time. Just log in to your PivotalTracker account and hit “Create Project +” in your dashboard. Just enter a name and you’re immediately ready to start. But, wait a minute. Before you start creating User Stories and setting up your backlog, it’s a good idea to change some default settings. Just choose “View” and then “Settings” to tweak the defaults.

Usually, I keep most of the defaults and just change what I’m used to. I’m a real fan of the Fibonacci Point Scale. I like the fact that using Fibonacci numbers (0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8) shows that estimations get rougher the bigger the User Story.

The next thing I change is SSL. Even though PivotalTracker warns you that you might lose some performance, I’ve never experienced any problems using SSL. And, I simply like the fact that Pivotal and I are the only ones seeing my stories.

The last thing I usually change is enabling Tasks. We don’t use them very regularly but for some stories it’s helpful to be able to check off steps during execution. We especially use them for releases. A release is a “story type” in PivotalTracker. We use Tasks to define all steps required to do a successful release. It helps us not forget anything and see our progress during a bigger migration.

Hit “Save Settings” and you’re ready to rock!

Tagging in PivotalTracker

Now you can start entering User Stories. As you know, it’s good practice to keep them small and independent to generate seamless flow.
But working with small, independent User Stories has disadvantages, too: It gets harder to see the big picture. Because of this, one of the most important ways of structuring your backlog is using tags. Here are the different use cases we solve with tagging stories:

  1. Grouping: To keep the big picture, we’re using Tags to group stories belonging to the same feature or topic area. Tags like “authentication”, “API”, or “Ritch Text Editing” act as binders for separate stories all dealing with those areas. Just clicking on any of those tags in PivotalTracker opens a new pane showing all stories having this tag. This gives you a powerful way of finding out whether everything regarding one topic is covered or the current progress of one topic area.
  2. Asking for clarification: Another way we’re using tags is asking for clarification. The tag “clarify” indicates that more information by the business owners is needed. It also indicates that no developer is able to pick this story until the tag is removed (and the question is answered or the missing data is provided).
  3. Denoting size and maturity of stories: The third way of using tags in PivotalTracker is to indicate, that a story is not really one story but a bigger feature or, how we call it: epic. Everyone knows that “epics” need some more discussion and that we’ve to break them down into User Stories eventually. But most of the time it is better to go into the details as late as possible so that you’ve got as much information as possible about the requirements.
  4. Marking Tech Stuff: Unfortunately, there are things from time to time which do not provide directly visible value for your users. For such stuff there is the story type “chore”. It does not have story points (good, as it does not add value) and it has a simplified flow – there are no “deliver” and “accept”/”reject” steps. This is fine for small stuff, but if you need to setup a reverse proxy you definitely want to do some testing. For such cases we label such stories with a tag called “chore” and assign it 0 points. This gives us a chance to walk through the full acceptance cycle for critical chores.

A good way of keeping your Tags visible all the time is to use “View” > “Labels & Searches”. This will open a small pane showing all your Tags (and, well, saved searches) and enables you to either directly click on one of the tags to show all related stories or to edit or delete tags.

PivotalTracker is really a great tool: Extremely simple yet very powerful. Its real time updates, backlog management, and auto-iterations all help to keep the tool out of your way. Using the tips mentioned above will give you a really smooth experience. And one last tip: Use a site specific browser like Mozilla Labs Prism or Fluid to run PivotalTracker separate from your normal web browsing activities. That enables you to keep it open all day without interfering too much.

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