146. Physical Boards and Informative Workspaces

February 18, 2020


Working in the hyper-collaborative but dispersed way we tend to as developers, we know it important to track progress both for ourselves and for our teams. There are many ways to do this. We can either make use of physical boards or virtual ones, of which Informative Workspaces are XP’s newest iteration. The idea of these boards and workspaces is to get as much information as fast as possible from the piece of data you’re looking so. So, for instance, if your project manager sees you’re lagging on your sprint, they can crack the whip and make you speed up. In this episode, we will look at some of the common virtual boards and their shortcomings. We know that some software (not mentioning names, Jira) is tailor-made for developers but it is too complicated and can even slow the project down. We look at when we’d use physical boards over virtual ones, drawbacks of physical boards, and how it would be possible to use both types of boards on one project. Remember, the tool you use should not hold you back. It should help you achieve the full potential of delivering your product. Do what feels right for you and go be productive!



Key Points From This Episode:


  • A look at what boards are and the purpose that they serve.
  • Some of the differences between Trello and Jira, two common virtual workspaces.
  • Find out why Mike strongly dislikes Jira: It’s way too complicated!
  • If you’re using a physical board, you have to use Post-Its. No off-brands allowed!
  • Learn more about some of the cons of using a physical work board.
  • There's only a short timeframe a story is relevant so pileups can make navigating tasks hard.
  • Virtual boards make it easier for people outside the team, like management, to see progress.
  • A recent experience Mike had where he used a combination of physical and virtual boards.
  • Tips on how to reconcile the differences between virtual and physical boards.

Transcript for Episode 146. Physical Boards and Informative Workspaces



[0:00:01.9] MN: Hello and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developer’s podcast in fantabulous Chelsea Manhattan. I’m your host, Michael Nunez. Our co-host today.

[0:00:09.8] DA: Dave Anderson.

[0:00:10.3] MN: And today, we’ll be talking about virtual versus physical boards and how do you track progress at work.

[0:00:18.6] DA: Is this about The Matrix?

[0:00:20.6] MN: Yes, the matrix of work, it’s not that fun Mr. Anderson.

[0:00:24.6] DA: Not kung fu.

[0:00:25.4] MN: No, not kung fu. Well, Mr. Anderson. Today, we’ll be talking about visual boards. Yeah, in the actual shop, you would find a board that would have pieces of information and sometimes it’s either virtual or physical.

[0:00:38.7] DA: Yeah. I think the term from XP is “Informative Workspace,’ one of the practices.

[0:00:45.9] MN: Right, the idea that you can get information as fast as possible when looking at a piece of data as the faster it is, the better in XP. Because you got to get back to pairing, what are you doing? Get to pairing, stop it, extreme, full potential.

[0:01:02.5] DA: Yeah, Go umbrella.

[0:01:05.5] MN: Yeah, a board is a tool to track your current sprint and make it visible for the team to get that information faster. Until you can you know, know how much work needs to get done till the end of the sprint.

[0:01:16.2] DA: Right, I mean, there’s so many products out there, there’s so many tools that people use to track this kind of information like Jira or Trello or Glubhouse or any number of enterprise ticketing solutions.

[0:01:31.1] MN: Right.

[0:01:31.6] DA: There’s also ways you can do it without those things.

[0:01:35.5] MN: Right, I mean like, the virtual boards come with a lot of power. I mean like, me, looking at it like thinking about it rather. Trello is like a place where you have swindling’s that go down, you can add and subtract swing lanes very easily, you can add stories to the backlog, you know, currently in progress, end QA, ready for the ship bin and you ship it and done, boom.

I think Trello plays on the idea that you can create and destruct these boards really fast so you can move forward however your team sees fit. Jira on the other hand has all sorts of tools that allows you to understand the burn down or the burn up and all sorts of stuff that happens around your sprint, are you familiar with like the tools that exist in Jira?

[0:02:23.1] DA: My god, yeah. I once – I did an RFP to like convert something to Jira and it was like, “Okay, how do we model our workflow?” We have a very particular workflow that we must have and Jira lets you do whatever you want. It will let you configure anything in the world like put up roadblocks, wait for approvals, all kinds of things.

[0:02:49.3] MN: It is nuts, all the stuff that you can get from Jira. But it was like it was going to take us weeks to configure. There are shops that do that. You know, shout out to those places that are like out there sitting down, fully understanding Jira to maximize the full potential of the engineers who are creating a product.

I’m going to say that a lot of times probably.

[0:03:11.8] DA: That’s the theme of the evening.

[0:03:13.5] MN: There you go. It could definitely create charts of how well the velocity of the team and keep track of all those things so that you can better improve the team going forward. And yeah, I mean, I personally hate Jira like I really – this is all I got, advertisement. I really hate Jira. Jira's so difficult.

[0:03:32.6] DA: This product placement right now, you’re getting paid.

[0:03:35.2] MN: No, I’m definitely not. If they paid me, they’re asking for the check back because I hate Jira. I hate it.

[0:03:42.2] DA: Any marketing is good marketing, right? Look at Peloton.

[0:03:45.4] MN: Hey, yup. I mean, that’s a spicy one right there. Yeah, Jira has so much stuff/ And I think the problem that I have and why I hate it is because you know, three out of four shops just want to track the swim lanes. That’s it. There’s so many things you can configure, it’s crazy.

[0:04:03.7] DA: But it’s also like, there’s so much configuration but then it’s also like, kind of – it adds complexity when you have that configuration. Some tools are a little more opinionated, you can’t configure it as much. Like something like –

[0:04:16.2] MN: Is Clubhouse like that?

[0:04:17.2] DA: Yeah, Clubhouse is a little more opinionated. I think Trello is also a little more opinionated because it’s just like, you have a card man. You can pull it left or right and like I don’t know what this means. At least Trello doesn’t know what it means.

[0:04:34.5] MN: Because they’re just cards.

[0:04:36.3] DA: They’re just cards, you just move them one place to another and you know, it’s up to you to derive what this means.

[0:04:42.4] MN: Right. Jira you can have it in epic and you can make it into another issue that is the parent initiative. It’s the thing above in epic and it’s crazy. Man, any time I accidentally click something on Jira, I just like close the window. “I need to stop to the beginning. Go back to my happy place. I saw way too many charts. I need to get out of here.” I just command of you out of there.

[0:05:12.0] DA: Right, yeah. I think that’s like part of the argument for like an Informative Workspace, right?

[0:05:18.3] MN: Right. If you find that it’s slowing down your productivity then that might either you invest in figuring out how it can improve your productivity or you throw it out. One or the other.

[0:05:30.6] DA: Right. But if you have a physical board in the room, you don’t have to alt tab over to the board and see what it is and make sure you're on the right tab and you didn’t click on the wrong link or whatever, it’s like –

[0:05:43.1] MN: You got to look up. Look at the wall, it’s right there.

[0:05:46.2] DA: Right. You're not constrained by what Jira or someone else thought you should do with the board.

[0:05:53.7] MN: Right, I think the only constraint you worry about with the physical board is if you got genuine Post-it notes, then chances are, it’s going to stick on the wall, if you got like some bootleg and you got to worry about the stickiness of it and you're going to have some scotch tape to put it up, that kind of stuff.

[0:06:10.1] DA: You got to get the super sticky ones.

[0:06:11.8] MN: Yeah. No, because once it comes off, and then you try to put it back on, that bad boy is going on the ground.

[0:06:19.5] DA: Yeah.

[0:06:21.7] MN: We right now have a physical board of the client that I’m in and like our swim lanes are derived of index cards with scotch tape because those are bigger but then our stories are actually like, in Post-it notes and we’ve been doing that as of late. It’s been really interesting.

One of the things I guess, there’s a couple of, I would say cons in using a physical board. First of all, when someone is working from home, you have to pray that there’s a person in the office to go, “Yo, Bobby, move that ticket for me bro. I’m done.” Because you can’t move it, there’s  no way for you to move it, you're working from home, right?

[0:07:01.1] DA: Yeah, XP doesn’t care about that guy.

[0:07:02.9] MN: Yeah.

[0:07:03.6] DA: That’s not extreme, working from home.

[0:07:06.8] MN: That’s not extreme at all, you got to plow through the snow, get to work. “Oh, you got the flu?” “Too bad. Pair, now!”

[0:07:15.3] DA: Bring your baby too.

[0:07:16.5] MN: Exactly.

[0:07:17.1] DA: It’s more extreme with the kid.

[0:07:19.2] MN: Strap it right on to your bag. “Here. Have a bottle with a pacifier.  Suck on that. Daddy’s got to work.” But if you're working from home then like the physical board can’t help you, you can’t really see what you can pull and if no one’s home, then you might as well take the day off. That’s like the one difficult thing I see right now with the physical board.

[0:07:41.1] DA: Right. I guess there’s also like deeper context for the story. You can write like a user story in the form like you know, as a person, I want some stuff so that I can have a good time or whatever. If you have the whole team there then you can have that conversation but containing links to mock ups and things like that.

Sometimes the virtual board can glue that stuff together. Opening’s here.

[0:08:11.9] MN: Right, sometimes a feature use a story could have like the mock up that you mentioned that you can just go and you can see them without having to like fetch through your computer or like look through emails because you didn’t – there’s no way for you to do that physically unless like you print the mock ups out and if you're doing that, why?

I’ve never thought of actually printing out mock ups on a physical board but that is like confusing. You would have to probably just have the mock ups on you in your computer and then like look through them in the context of when that story was written which could be really confusing.

[0:08:48.1] DA: Right. It could be cool if you print them off, I don’t know, I’ve never done it before.

[0:08:51.5] MN: I’ve never done that before either. I never thought about that. It’s just been like, “Hey, get that work done.” It’s like well, “Who do I have to talk to about these designs?” If you’re printing them out or you have a map in your computer, I think that’s the best bet but one of the benefits of using a virtual board is that you can have all that space.

Another problem with me and physical board is I should not be responsible to write the stories up because my handwriting is atrocious.

[0:09:20.4] DA: I do remember that, I was working on a team that had a physical board and like, there was like one guy who were like, we were very happy when he volunteered to write the tickets up.

[0:09:31.3] MN: Had a good handwriting?

[0:09:33.2] DA: Yeah, very good handwriting. But then our project manager, everybody made fun of his handwriting. I felt very bad for him because like you know, he’s the guy who has all the context, he’s ready to help. But you know, it’s like man, I just can’t read the writing that you’re putting down here.

[0:09:48.1] MN: You know, I’ll be honest with you. Like sometimes I want to break my hand just so that I can force myself to learn how to write again so that I can write better. That’s like really extreme.

[0:09:57.4] DA: You want like a montage sequence where you're like recovering? Learning to write again?

[0:10:03.7] MN: Learning how to write again with a broken hand. Maybe, I don’t know. I need to know how to write better and I think I need to just go back to first grade and just follow, you know, all those dotted lines you get?

[0:10:14.8] DA: Yeah. I mean, to a degree, it’s like muscle memory, it’s like typing. You practice it a little bit every day and maybe you can get better at it.

[0:10:22.7] MN: I mean, the way I write is so nice but it’s so ugly to read for other people. I have an idea what I wrote.

[0:10:27.6] DA: You're really happy with it actually?

[0:10:29.4] MN: I’m okay with it, it’s just like, “Is that an F or an R?” I don’t know Mike, what’s that? I write the F but I never lift up the pen when I write a lowercase F. It looks like an R sticking its leg out straight or something, I don’t know, it’s weird. I’ll Tweet it or something so people can make fun of me.

[0:10:46.3] DA: Okay, I don’t know if I have seen your physical header actually. We’re just taking those in Google Docs.

[0:10:51.2] MN: Yeah and I am glad we’ve had to do that and that is the reason why I like physical boards because it is just like it allows me to write notes faster because I could type much better than I could write. So, when people are like, “Hey Mike, do you mind writing a story down?” I’m like, “Yeah, I do mind. Like please?”

[0:11:09.7] DA: Yeah, I guess there are certain things that like if you are working with the virtual board it doesn’t provide a particular feature that you need. It doesn’t have a certain type of report or it doesn’t let you drag a card in a certain way then you might just be like, “Oh well how do I make this tool do this thing for me? How do I get that burn down chart? Or how do I put the story somewhere for later? Or group them in a different way.” Yeah it might not support that so you just be like, “Okay, well I guess I have to work inside of the constraints that I am provided.”

[0:11:45.1] MN: Right, I mean given the timeframe, if you really have the time to set up Jira it will help you do that. But nobody’s got the time for that.

[0:11:53.3] DA: It is like a full-time job.

[0:11:55.1] MN: Yeah, ain’t nobody have time for that. You got to hire a Scrum master and they’re the ones responsible for that one.

[0:12:02.1] DA: That poor soul.

[0:12:02.9] MN: Yeah and having a backlog that is extensive physically. It is also like you know how often does that happen I think it might be a little difficult too like do you have a pile of stories hanging out in this space as your backlog, as you pull them in or are you writing them like the thing

[0:12:23.5] DA: Yeah that is interesting. I guess there’s a time that a story is most known to be valuable. But often even with virtual boards if you write that story out far in advance, by the time you get to it you’ll find that you have a pile of Post-it notes here like,”Why did I ever think that I needed this?” Which I mean it’s fine and then you can Marie Kondo it into the garbage.

[0:12:52.3] MN: If it doesn’t spark joy throw it out. Say thank you card for reminding me that I have a duplicate of this and it was great when I first wrote it and then you put it in the trash. That is the true Marie Condo of Jira. I think another – I know I hate it, I mentioned that I hated Jira and talking about physical boards is great but one of the things that you don’t get from a physical board is like it is tied down only to the team that is responsible for the stories to get done.

I think what I have seen Jira uses is not the chief O or a C-suite officer or whatnot but like someone higher up may want to see like what is all the work that is currently being done in the organization? And imagine doing that with the physical board where you have 12 teams all physical boards. That would be really hard to get down and get that information. Like every Scrum Master would have to create a document of what’s happening in the physical board.

So that this particular C-suite or higher upper management is one to find that hump and what’s the work that is getting done. Using Jira, if every team is on it then it’s like a link that you can see all the work.

[0:14:05.5] DA: Right, yeah. I mean I guess that’s like when these tools really start getting used more. It’s like, “Okay, we are growing as a team. We need to agree on some way that we can collectively know what we are all working on.”

[0:14:21.1] MN: Right. I recently ran an exercise at the client that I am on where we did a user story mapping where we pretty much had to use a physical board to kind of go through the journey of a user and writing out the stories of the future of this product. So, we had like a timeline – not a timeline but like from left to right how a user interacts with the application.

[0:14:44.6] DA: Okay. Just like their to-do for the day like they brush their teeth and get dressed and take a shower?

[0:14:50.7] MN: Right. So, if you have an application from left to right, say this is going to be freestyle so I may mess this up but say you got like a Fitbit and the user wants to start tracking the jogging that he is going to do. So, Bobby presses the button and then he starts going on for a jog. So, one of the features is start tracking for jogging and when that happens to hit a particular front end or backend, I do not work for Fitbit nor is this an advertisement unless you want to send me one.

[0:15:21.0] DA: That Google money.

[0:15:21.9] MN: Yeah exactly. So, if you had that hit certain applications and then you have to put certain pain points that exists so like if the users are like, “Oh man it doesn’t show me the time that I have been currently tracking.” That would be like a pain point and you write all of this in two halves. A top half and a bottom half. Where the top half is what is the current implementation of all of this work and what is the bottom half of what you dream of what you expect things to be?

And what you do is you end up writing stories or tasks that will go from as is the current implementation to the to-be implementation of it. You’re like, “Oh if a user’s pain point is that they wish they can look at the timer as they are doing their run then maybe we need to create an interface on the FitBit screen to show the time that’s currently elapsed as they are running kind of thing?” And like you write all of the stories down to the to-be dream implementation until the dream is true.

[0:16:24.8] DA: That’s cool, yeah. So, I am hearing like it sounds like a very collaborative process. You are kind of pulling cards around like rearranging things and like putting them in groupings that are like kind of evolving over time. So, it’s like I do know how you do this in Agile and so I would not imagine how you could do this in Jira.

[0:16:47.6] MN: No. Yeah this is all physical. And then what we did from there is that we try to plan out the sprints that we currently have like, “Oh if we fit all of these tasks that we did into the sprints for the next six sprints what would that look like?” And we plugged all of that in and yeah, we have like a road map of what we expect to work to get done, which is great on the physical board. That exercise there is no way you could do that. I don’t think you could do it virtually, unless there is one, I am unfamiliar with at the moment. But if you –

[0:17:15.5] DA: Right but you know someone had to put in many, many hours making an opinionated tool about how to do this thing or you could just set like three or four engineers at a room and make some cards. Figure it out.

[0:17:29.0] MN: Yeah and then what we did at the end was we took all the stories that we implemented through the user story mapping and we put it Jira. So, like that allowed us to have a physical and then we put it on a virtual but we want to keep our physical board as the board of truth because right now the client uses Jira. But we are trying to use a physical board. So, we have to keep them both in line with the source of truth, which will right now is on Jira but will eventually be the physical board.

[0:17:58.6] DA: Okay, cool.

[0:17:59.8] MN: I guess I’ll ask you. Have you ever had discrepancy between physical boards and virtual boards and how did the source of truth, which one it was sort of became it? Because I have always have that problem like, “Hey, we use virtual. I want to use physical.” And then you got to figure out the system behind it.

[0:18:19.9] DA: I mean it is always tough figuring out whose responsibility is to update the board, which everyone is not authoritative like if we were to say, “Okay the physical board is the real deal.” Then either everybody has to be very diligent about updating their own stuff, which you know gets out of sync, occasionally. So, somebody’s got to be the custodian and go through and clean it up and make sure –

[0:18:50.3] MN: You got to be the board’s lord.

[0:18:52.5] DA: It’s like, “Oh the board lord? Okay.”

[0:18:54.4] MN: You got to be the board lord. You have to keep them in sync.

[0:18:57.5] DA: Well, I mean when you say it like that it sounds very prestigious and I am fully ready for this responsibility.

[0:19:04.1] MN: That came into mind with the whole idea of being the time lord. but like I didn’t think it’s important.

[0:19:10.5] DA: I’d rather be a board lord. It sounds better.

[0:19:12.0] MN: Yeah, I don’t know. It just came into mind. The way I see it, if you want to do the other thing like say if there is a physical board and you want to use a virtual board because you work from home and you think that that’s like the best way to collaborate with people then you have to be the board lord. There is no stopping that, you want this other thing? You got to pick one.

So right now, since we’re planning we’re enjoying the physical board aspect, I am signing up to be the custodian but I am going to switch up that title of be the board lord.

[0:19:44.4] DA: Oh yeah, yeah that is more powerful. I feel like you will reach your full potential.

[0:19:49.8] MN: Oh, my full potential, yes. Well, I guess if you use a physical board or a virtual board just keep in mind as we have mentioned before in time, it is about Informative Workspace and if the tool that you are using is a constraint for the team to get and deliver the product as effortlessly as possible, if that tool isn’t doing it for you then you should really reconsider a different tool.

[0:20:17.8] DA: Right, yeah don’t let the tool hold you back. Like be a source of friction.

[0:20:23.0] MN: Yeah. Again, don’t let the tool as you said, hold you back and be and use and have your full potential in delivering product. I just got to throw it in there a couple more times.

[0:20:34.4] DA: Yeah, so they get it.


[0:20:36.7] MN: Follow us now on Twitter @radiofreerabbit so we can keep the conversation going. Like what you hear? Give us a five star review and help developers like you find their way into The Rabbit Hole and never miss an episode, subscribe now however you listen to your favorite podcast. On behalf of our producer extraordinaire, William Jeffries and my amazing co-host, Dave Anderson and me, your host, Michael Nunez, thanks for listening to The Rabbit Hole.


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