Placeholder for a Conversation

12 Mar 2022

As a new manager, in an environment where team and company processes are morphing and changing, I have been asked to share my opinions on a number of topics. My answers are taking a common shape; tools are placeholders for conversations. The first example is Jira.

There are no shortage of opinions about Jira. Both the software itself, and the effects on teams it can have when wielded in certain ways. I have many strong opinions. I have almost no opinions on Jira. It is... irrelevant to me how people want to use it. How many columns on your board? How many statuses? Are we using labels, custom fields, themes? I say: "Whatever you want."

I do care about is the ticket. I don't care if the ticket has paragraphs of detail, I don't care if you use Jira as documentation (I think you're going to have a really bad time, but thats a different conversation). I don't care if the body of the ticket is empty and as the Engineer you prefer to write it in a notebook. I have zero feelings on that.

What do I care about for tickets? A ticket represents a conversation. I don't care where the conversation gets recorded, or at all (provided the people are capable of remembering it). My problem is when a ticket exists absent any conversation at all.

No matter how hard you try you're not going to have a successful handoff in a ticket. Not to mention handoffs are bad. Handoffs exist when one person has context, and others lack it. Now we have to perform a knowledge transfer. First, have as few handoffs as possible. Teams that work together should be building shared context together. If you have shared context, there is no handoff. How do you measure whether you're doing this well? When the real conversations about the tickets get shorter over time.

If you've worked at a startup I am willing to bet you've had this experience. You open up the Jira backlog. It is full of tickets. Old tickets, weird labels and epics. Acronyms you've never heard of that the startup doesn't even use anymore. You see dozens of tickets that only have a title. You're seething because you have no idea how to make any sense of it all. "Why didn't they document anything?!"

Those old tickets with only a title, no description, were created by some of the founding & early engineers. Maybe they're still working there, maybe they left a while ago. This is strong evidence of a team working with extremely shared context. That ticket may be two years old, but if you ask them about it—they can still describe what its about to you. That team had a conversation and created a ticket to mark the conversation. You're seething when you see this because you have none of the context, you weren't in the conversation.

That conversation is what matters. Jira (or Trello, Pivotal, sticky notes on a wall, pick any other etc) is only a good tool when it facilitates those conversations and makes sure that the team has them. If people use the tool to have the conversation thats what really matters. That is the best way your team is going to build shared context. And maybe one day they'll make tickets with only titles, but you won't be mad because you know exactly what they're going to do.