Visualizing Work

May 15, 2020

One inevitable part of engineering management is some form of ticket management. For most, that means using Jira, and I’ve yet to meet someone who likes it. However, despite the distaste for Jira, everyone knows if we didn’t have ticket tracking, getting things done would be messy and error-prone. Ticketing tools give you a way to visualize work to ensure you can organize and prioritize effectively. Thinking of Jira as a way to visualize work, as opposed to a big TODO list, makes it possible to have a visual representation of the work. Rather than a set of directions, you get a phone with GPS and maps to help you get you where you want to go.

The question then is, how do you transform your backlog and sprints from a big hairy TODO list into a clear picture of work?

The first step is to groom your backlog. As some people are not a fan of Agile’s different flavors or implementations, the goal of grooming is to start painting a picture of what work is out there. Going through this process helps fill up your mental cache of work. As you go through your backlog, it is vital to organize and group the work into higher-level chunks. For example, in Jira, I use the scrum board and keep sets of tickets in epics that I hope to close out in 4-8 weeks. Whatever you use to create these high-level chunks doesn’t matter. All that matters is you’ve taken your big flat list and converted it to a small set of tasks you can understand as a whole. If you have too many chunks, it is signal you might have committed to too much work, or you need more focus on the team.

With your work organized into some high-level groupings, you can start to visualize the specific tasks. Kanban is a good example here, but any sort of board tool works. Again, I like the scrum board in Jira because it limits the work to those things you’ve chosen for the sprint. For me, this reduces the work to something manageable and helps to ensure prioritized efforts are the most visible. Another problem I’ve run into is seeing work that isn’t associated with one of my teams. In this case, I’ve had to do things like using tags or labels and custom queries to help visualize the work. My goal is to ensure I can see that work on the board, so I don’t lose track of it.

The visual representation is the goal of this whole process. You need to create a dashboard that you consistently reference that presents a picture of the work. Depending on your team, that picture is going to be different. No matter what sort of work you’re doing, visualizing the work is critical to keeping tabs on how you can help your team as a manager. It is also vital in managing up and out, communicating your team’s progress, and planning for the future.

In theory, your ticketing system can probably do a lot of other exciting features as well if your team becomes dedicated to this process. You can track time, generate reports, automate processes, and a million additional seemingly helpful information. While these are probably nice to have, don’t let it distract from the goal of visualizing the work. Adding time tracking or overthinking reports of progress doesn’t help you manage the work happening right now. Thinking about how much work you can do in the future is secondary to making sure you execute and get things done now.

I don’t imagine that any of this is entirely new information. But, I hope that it presents a slightly different perspective on tools like Jira. I often have found myself feeling overwhelmed with keeping track of all the work happening on the team. When this happens, this exercise of grouping the efforts provides clarity and helps to move things along.