Staying Organized – Tools of the Trade

To successfully manage projects in a digital strategy agency, you’ll find yourself using various services, programs and techniques to keep track. There is no one ideal solution to deal with the huge amount of information that a project manager needs to stay on top off, and every agency has their own suite of tools that they prefer. Each project manager may also have his or her own methods for organization (and hopefully share those methods with their coworkers, as we do at Metal Toad).

Keeping it all together

What did the developer say about implementing that feature? Did the client want the app background changed to blue or green? When are we going live with that site? Having a central repository for information relating to a project is vital.

Most of our project information lives in Basecamp. We use Basecamp to keep track of files relating to a project, client communication, project timeline, and to-dos. While email can be a great tool for communication, it’s also easy for things to get lost in the shuffle. Not everyone has access to your email, but everyone can have access to a web-based tool like Basecamp. Being able to reply via email rather than logging into the system is a feature our clients love, and most appreciate having an easy way of looking at the status of their project.

Incidentally, we use Basecamp Classic at Metal Toad. While we’ve been exploring the new version of Basecamp and love the new user interface, there are some features that are greatly missed (templates and private messages in particular).

If you are a developer working on a team and you aren’t using some sort of version control, you’re asking for trouble. Subversion and Git are two of the more popular solutions for version control. We use Git via Github to keep track of our code, and have some goodies available in our public repos.

Daily To-Dos and Project Planning

You’d figure for a company that creates incredible technology solutions for our clients, we’d be paper-adverse. Nothing yet beats having a notepad or notebook handy, however. Speed, ease of use, and the ability to easily switch between writing notes or sketching something out, you won’t find any of our project managers without a paper and a pen or mechanical pencil nearby.

As mentioned before, we do also keep to-do lists in Basecamp, mainly for items that we need to share with a group or assign to a specific person. I’m a big proponent of Remember the Milk, and have shelled out the money for the pro version the past few years to have easy access to the mobile app (which is incredibly easy to use). Being able to keep track of things that I need to get done on a platform that works on both a desktop computer and a mobile device, while being able to seamlessly switch between both allows me to stay on track whether in the office, at an off site client meeting, or riding the bus.

Text files are easy to keep track of as well and about as universal as you get on different computer systems, making them a file format of choice for taking notes. Since our notes are documented in Basecamp, we have a tendency to write notes in textile so that we can easily transfer these notes to Basecamp without any fuss.

We’re also avid users of Google Apps, taking full advantage of Gmail, Google Calendar and the new Google Drive. Rather than use Microsoft Office or a similar product, many of us use Google Docs – with the added benefit of being able to easily collaborate in real time.

Time Tracking and Bug Fixing

Keeping track of your time and the time developers are spending on projects is absolutely vital for a project manager. You need know succinctly where a project is going and whether the project’s goals are going to be met, and that’s impossible if you can’t correlate time spent vs. budget. While Basecamp has time tracking built in, we found that it didn’t quite meet our needs, especially when it comes to time reporting. Enter Harvest.

Harvest is a fantastic service for keeping track of time spent on a project. You can easily start and stop tasks within the web interface or through the native app. The reporting functionality in Harvest allows us to easily see how much time is going to certain aspects of a project (project management, development, quality assurance, etc.) and whether we’re on target.

For keeping track of feature requests and bug fixes, Lighthouse is our current tool of choice. Descriptions are written into Lighthouse tickets, and we correlate those ticket numbers with notes in Harvest, so that we can easily track how much time is spent on specific tickets.

Tools are only good if you use them

There are many different tools and services out there to help manage an interactive project, but they are only good if you have buy-in from your team. If a tool isn’t used, there’s no benefit. Find tools that work for you. Introduce them to your coworkers, allowing them to try integration with their own workflow. For example, a member of the Metal Toad team introduced us to Yammer a couple of months ago. We’ve since integrated that within our workflow, allowing us to better keep tabs on what our coworkers or doing during the day.

What do you use to stay organized and make a project successful? Sound off in the comments below.

Comments

kent's picture

Google Tasks as a to-do list.

I've been using Google tasks to also manage my to-do list tasks. It is integrated into the browser interface of gmail, and you can pop it out into it's own window if you keep gmail in a pinned tab in Chrome (by right-clicking on the tab and selecting "Pin Tab").

I tried Remember the Milk, but I didn't find a satisfactory desktop client that I could keep open in a small window, and you have to get a pro version in order to sync from your phone to your master list.

I tried some native Android apps for Google tasks, but ended up bookmarking this page as a homepage icon because it automatically sync'd up the tasks: https://mail.google.com/tasks/android?pli=1

We've also used some Excel spreadsheets for conditional formatting options that aren't available in Google Docs, and we also still use some Word for some documents that are client-facing because we can timestamp the versions and keep track of the progression of documents in that way.

tyler's picture

wrap it.

see my post. I've wrapped Google Tasks in Fluid and it rocks. Guaranteed to stay open and not disappear within the context of browser windows like it does when it's a weird pop-out window.

maylene's picture

Gettin' Things Done

Great post! My two yen:

I switched from Remember the Milk to Toodledo a few years ago before settling on Evernote more recently for my daily to-do list needs. I simply keep the to-do list at the top of a daily note with a detailed log of my time below it as I move through my day; this way, I can keep my timecard logs a bit cleaner and still have a place to reference exactly how I spent my time each day. For long-term to-dos/projects, I've really liked Trello though I find Basecamp an excellent tool for tracking client communication.

tyler's picture

Use SOMETHING

As with any selection of tools, some are definitely better than others. It's always important to use the best tool for the job, and when it comes to web apps, the degree of fit is largely going to depend on individual or team needs.

We all have our own processes and workflows, and many of us may work within those established by our companies and environments.

For example, Basecamp Classic's messaging-centric approach to project management makes it seem like a great communication tool. In its infancy, I used it as an intranet of sorts for that reason. As it evolved, it quickly became deficient for this purpose. When I began to use it more for project management (DUH!), it was more effective (but exposed other process inefficiencies).

My tip for web apps (google calendar, google tasks, pandora) is to wrap them in a tool like Fluid (http://fluidapp.com/). You get stability and process separation from other browser windows, and you can ensure their desktop window is sized consistently.

In some cases, this trumps the dedicated app options (Try it with http://yammer.com, more stable and consistent than either the AIR app or Gabble).

kronda's picture

Since I work here, it goes

Since I work here, it goes without saying that I'm using most of those tools too. :) I had a brief fling with Remember the Milk but then left it for Things which works great but will set you back $80 smackers if you want it on Mac/Ipad/Iphone. I opted for two out of three (and they didn't even have cloud sync when I bought it) and have been happy with it.

Then my app happy wife found Wunderlist. I was reluctant to try it (another app oy!), but I must admit I got sucked in by the simplicity of it and have been using it for several weeks. It syncs effortlessly, not to mention it's FREE and works on Windows and Android for folks who like that sort of thing (ew).

On a developer note, I couldn't live without Snippets, which stores all my handy random bits of code that I pick up from coworkers and around the web. It integrates with Snipplr which is a free web based tool that does the same thing but I like Snippets for the ability to have Tab expand triggers.

So if I want to see commits from the last week, instead of trying to remember:

git log --all --pretty=format:"%h %cd %s (%an)" --since='7 days ago'

I just type gitlog7 and hit Tab.

Very valid point about team

Very valid point about team buy-in. While the project manager has a very big job to do, if the team doesn't utilize the project management tools they are given it's going to make the task a lot harder to accomplish successfully. Communication and team cooperation is definitely key.

Customer involvment

An interesting point which came to my mind is the interface between the internal management of projects and customers having access to those PM / bug trackers used.

From my experience, giving customers access to internal tools does not work smoothly. The internal workflows and processes for reporting bugs are not adopted as intended.

I wrote a blog post about my experience here: http://bit.ly/ReKXet

(Disclaimer: I'm co-founder of Usersnap)

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