Release v1.17 (http://yoxel.com) has a bunch of new capabilities and I am quite excited to list a few of them here:

  1. YOXEL SLS (an experimental suite for sales teams), that has been only available in our on-demand version, is now included in the open source version. You get two subsystems: sales forecast tracking and product evaluations tracking. Many other CRM products have forecast/opportunity tracking solutions but you will not see many good product evaluations tracking solutions. We would like to think that ours are quite unique and powerful, plus they become integral part of the whole product management solution:

    Bridging the worlds of PLM and CRM

  2. Profile editing capabilities added for customer/contact logins. Besides entering contacts information only on your side (correct name/email/password/opt-out options/…), the traditional CRM way, you can now rely to some degree on the contact itself. Certain fields have been opened for your contacts, that have login access privileges, for editing. This kind of makes it CRM 2.0 – more interactive relationship with your customers and better feedback management :).
  3. CVS and basic Subversion integration is enabled though email comments support. Besides capturing email responses related to requests and attaching them to the request history/log, Yoxel in a similar way now can attach your commit messages coming from CVS or Subversion.
  4. Responding to a request from one of our users, support for Retrospectiva external bug-tracker has been added too. Now it is possible to configure Yoxel to import requests from one of these bug-trackers: Bugzilla, GNATS, Mantis, Retrospectiva. For a smooth transition to “agile”!
  5. … other more specific capabilities and bug fixes …

Ejoy!

PS: And please send us your feedback.

This article Still failing, still learning , by Reg Braith, made me take a look at my experiences with Yoxel project from a different angle. It makes a lot of sense now that I think about it more and more. Things are different in today’s highly competitive and changing market environment. Software companies are trying to become more adaptive and the key enabler is better communication, coordination, and collaboration. Project management, especially within agile methodologies, highly depends on people’s ability to communicate freely and clearly, to deliver new information instantly, to keep the project status up to date. With focus on human factor and better communication the process becomes very social.

Project management in general is an interesting beast because it imposes a structured element of the project steps and goals on the social one. Your project and the participants do have to follow certain workflow to get things done and report their status according to but then also along the way (or within defined boundaries) you have unstructured collaboration going on which is more similar to an Internet chat, a forum, or a conference call. It seems like project management software these days has to address both of the elements to have any significant value for a team. Define structure and allow collaboration. That is why solutions like Wiki’s, Jotspot, Socialtext are quite popular these days, they provide the social aspect to structured or relatively structured processes.

Just a few examples, based on our project, where the social element has become a significant differentiator:

  1. Collaborative release/iteration plan creation. A few release members, massage content of the plan, vote on priorities, try different resource allocation schemes, estimate, and communicate by posting comments to the project log. This is a social activity that allows distributed teams to quickly arrive at a reasonable plan while capturing the reasoning behind important desicions.
  2. Project monitoring. Here the real-time status information on individual requests is essential. This is how the overall project status is figured out. And an accurate, up to date progress status keeps your team properly focused by pinpointing problem areas and bottlenecks of the development process. Of cause capturing of the collaboration in the project log is very useful at this stage too.
  3. Individual request monitoring. Collaboration is enabled at the level of individual project tasks too. Any participant can subscribe to a particular request updates and post his own comments. Request owner moves the request along the workflow as he makes progress, and other involved participants monitor the process and follow up when required.
  4. How about product/support knowledge base? User ratings and expert identification. Also we have been experimenting with community guided search.

Great observation by Reg. I should emphasize the social aspect of YOXEL SW in our marketing collateral, huh :)?

We released our next open source version v1.13 on Monday. This LAMP based software is available for download at SourceForge and FreshMeat, see www.yoxel.com for details.

The package includes 3 products:

  • YOXEL SW – Agile software product management
  • YOXEL KB – Knowledge Base / Q&A management
  • YOXEL IT – IT project management

Check out our demo accounts at www.yoxel.com to see what Yoxel Systems is all about.

 

Agile business, Agile product, Agile team.

The topic of applying agile methodologies to your business processes seems to have become quite popular these days. The benefits of becoming agile are pretty attractive for software companies and yet many of them still do not clearly understand how they could make a smooth transition and whether this “agile” thing really works. I believe part of the confusion is owing to the fact that most of the information and discussions on this topic focus on software development aspect and forget that the companies are businesses and there is a little more to creating a great product than just code development. I prefer to look at the problem of becoming more agile and adaptive from a slightly higher level, product management (PM) level. PM for me is about product development and coordination of multiple teams and processes (development, customer support, marketing, management, sales). In my opinion agile product management (and product development of cause as its essential part) is what you should consider.

Re-visiting, re-fining and re-prioritizing product requirements, plus soliciting, and digesting customer feedback, for each development iteration, are the key ideas of the agile methodologies. In smaller companies your development team may be the one in charge of all of those functions but as your company grows you will most probably have more specialized roles and teams responsible for market requirement and customer feedback management (product managers, technical marketing, professional services, sales engineering …). Hence the agility of your whole business will depend on how well these different teams can interact with each other and especially with the development team to facilitate relevant development iterations and produce what your customers expect. This collaborative work of multiple teams is nothing else but your product management process. And in my opinion it is a very challenging task to make this process efficient and agile. Unfortunately just a white board and story cards may not be enough.

I strongly believe your company will benefit if it finds an appropriate tool to support its PM process. Ideally you will want to have a magic system that engages your development team, your product managers, your support team, and even customers to enable better collaboration, coordination, and reporting. Such a system should be as attractive to the development folks as to product managers, marketing, sales and management. Sure, it could be several systems but then they had better be all integrating and collaborating well with each other. As of today I do not really know of any standard open interfaces/frameworks allowing different vendors to create product management solutions that could smoothly interact and collaborate with each other (Eclipse may be?), so the choice is still usually a one vendor solution, or better (my own preference) an open source solution.

“Hybrid Agile” methodologies and the tools.

Most of the companies that are serious about their business are already agile. They have figured out a certain process that works well for them (with whatever tools they could find). Such companies may not follow strict SCRUM, or strict XP but they are agile. A hybrid agile methodology is often a real life situation.

For me it is always interesting to learn what kind of tools software companies use in support of their hybrid agile approaches. I like to talk to product managers of small/mid-size software companies and ask them about their current methods and tools: how they manage and prioritize product requirements and backlog of requests; how they plan, estimate and resource allocate/balance for each iteration; how they track project implementation and testing; how they gather customer feedback. In order to substantiate my statement that you should look for better tools let me give you a few examples here of what the companies use currently; you will see that the situation could be better.

Company A:
—————-
MS Word and Excel for requirements/prioritization
Wikis for collaborative documentation
Jira for project planning/tracking
Jira for bugs and tasks tracking

Company B:
—————-
MS Excel for requirements/prioritization
MS Excel and sketching tasks/stories on white boards for planning/tracking
Scrum plugin for MS Visual Studio Team System

Company C:
————-
MS Excel for requirements/prioritization
X-Planner and Wikis as the collaboration workspace
X-Planner for project planning/tracking
Bugzilla for backlog/bugs and task tracking

Company D:
————-
Shared Google spreadsheet for requirements/prioritization
Omniplan for resource allocation, and project planning/tracking
FogBugz for backlog/bugs and task tracking

Company E,F,G,H,…
———————-
MS Excel/salesforce.com for requirements/prioritization
MS Project/basecamphq.com/Excel for resource allocation, project planning/tracking
Bugzilla/Jira/Mantis/GNATS for task tracking

Amazingly enough there is abundance of agile companies that simply use Bugzilla/Mantis/GNATS and MS Excel. It is probably explained by popularity of the MS Excel and open-source bug-trackers (thousands of development teams have standardized their processes on those), lack of knowledge about better alternatives, and the fact that smaller companies tend to spend less money on tools in this area. My personal observations are that although these companies managed to stay agile their current processes could still be improved and accelerated. A number of new generation tools could help them in that:

  1. Smaller teams tend to do fine with just Wikis but in other cases it seems like more than two or three different tools have to be used to support the process properly. A bug-tracker (from R&D side) seems to always be in the picture and a requirements management tool (from PM side, usually Excel) also. Plus various project management, resource allocation, time tracking tools. My problem with this is the lack of integration hence a lot of manual work to keep all the tools synchronized plus perhaps burden on IT to support all those tools and integrate them:
    • Spreadsheet tool (except Google’s) is not a collaborative environment.
    • Sooner or later PM has to manually transfer the data from his spreadsheet to a bug-tracker and also to a project manager/time tracker.
    • Every now and then PM has to update project status manually based on the status of individual tasks from the bug-tracker.
    • Real-time detailed status of projects is not readily available
  2. The reporting capabilities are pretty poor in all these examples or achieved at the expense of significant manual work. Reporting can be extremely important for keeping your management and team members updated and informed. Good paper reports can actually be almost as effective as white boards and story cards during your agile team meetings.
  3. A few companies that have been more flexible and also educated on the available new generation tools for agile methodologies have made their transition to X-planner, MS team SCRUM plugin, RallyDev or VersionOne. Again, that is mostly to support agile development process. This is great! Although I still have a few concerns: these tools enforce a certain agile methodology (SCRUM or XP), new terminology, and may require significant ramp-up/learning time from your development team whereas you may want to do an agile variation of your own that does not disturb your current team specifics so much. Just think how Mozilla, Apache, MySQL, Eclipse projects would react if you suggested to them to abandon their Bugzillas and Mantises and switch to another “agile” request-tracker. The same is true for almost any software company.
  4. Customer feedback is usually managed by product managers, professional services and support organizations. Among the companies I talk to I do not see much adoption of customer feedback management tools although there are some interesting tools out there. IdeaScope seems to be one of them! Its advertised most valuable use seems to be mostly in combination with Featureplan product which may be an overkill for a smaller company, but still. (Featureplan, by the way, also enforces a certain pragmatic framework.)

Any recommendations?

There are some interesting new generation tools designed specifically to support agile methodologies. And yet the real challenge is for the companies that do not feel comfortable with radical changes of their current tooling or are reluctant to abandon their bug-trackers. There are fewer options for these companies (although I may be wrong).

  • Smaller co-located teams probably will not need any specific tools. Wikis and any bug-tracker will be enough. Think about your future though, if you are growing, a day may come when your wiki/bug-tracker environment is not enough to accommodate your team/business dynamics.
  • If your team is bigger, especially if it is distributed, and wants to do a strict SCRUM/XP and you can afford a significant change to your current processes, you should probably go with some of these new tools: RallyDev, VersionOne, X-Planner. They are great! Pick one that addresses your product managers’ and other non-developer’s needs also.
  • The teams that want to transition to or improve the support for their existing agile processes but are not comfortable with radical changes, in my opinion should look for a tool that integrates with their Bugzilla, Mantis, GNATS, Retrospectiva, Jira, … and is designed to be a tool for product managers too. Make sure it has the release/iteration manager that allows you to plan and track your iterations and derive useful statistics.

Yoxel Systems

The project I am involved with, Yoxel Systems , should be a really good fit for the last category mentioned above where you really care about smooth transition or are looking to support your hybrid “agile” approach. We try to create a flexible solution for product managers, field support, and developers that can accommodate a variety of agile methodologies, so Yoxel is also an alternative to RallyDev, VersionOne, X-Planner. On top of the release/iteration management aspect Yoxel tries to be very customer focused providing customer support, product knowledge management, and lightweight CRM capabilities too, all integrated into one product management system.

(Please try our demo accounts at http://yoxel.com)

Enjoy!

Many software companies sooner or later come to the conclusion that they need to have some kind of product/support knowledge management system (Q&A management system). The questions from your customers related to your products should be answered in a best possible way (by your experts) and this Q&A knowledge had better be saved and organized in a way that is easy for search and access by internal and external users. A good knowledge base system (KBS) allowing customer access can help you accomplish a number of things:

  • Properly route a question to an expert for a comprehensive answer
  • Capture all relevant comments added in the process of answer discovery
  • Identify your experts for each category of knowledge (using rating)
  • Automatically detect the frequently asked questions and enable publishing of FAQ’s.
  • Allow your customers and your internal users to search the database, rate the relevancy of the search results, and suggest new categories

Without going into more details about possible KBS capabilities I think it is pretty clear that having a KBS in place is pretty useful for accumulating product knowledge and increasing efficiency of your support teams.

Also another benefit of having such a KBS in place is that it is a valuable source of customer feedback. You do not have to solicit the feedback from your customers, run email campaigns with questionnaires, bother people with calls; when they have an important enough question they will file it in your KBS, and if they see that the system actually reacts to their questions they will engage more and give you more feedback. You, as a product manager, could be monitoring the system to understand better what your customers expect from your products.

  • Current FAQ’s and popular categories of questions may tell you which parts of your product/services need improvements or more focus from your development, QA or documentation teams.
  • Unanswered questions may indicate insufficient support knowledge or unexpected usage of your product by some customers. You company may have to develop expertise in some areas. Such questions may also give you ideas for new products.
  • Knowing your experts within each knowledge category can help you in the requirements creation process. These are the people you may want to consult with, in the future.
  • Knowing most active customers filing questions in your KBS and their problems will help you identify your potential champions and find ways to make them happy with the product

What do you think?