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Chris Cardell

Interview with Matthew O’Riordan (easyBacklog)

easyBacklog is a time saving backlog management tool for Agile practitioners working in or with agencies.

I interviewed Matthew O’Riordan, easyBacklog founder to find out more. This interview is the seventy sixth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Matthew!

How would you describe easyBacklog in under 50 words?

easyBacklog is an easy to use Agile and Scrum backlog management tool designed for agencies and agile teams working with “fixed cost Agile”. It has unparalleled abilities to help version and report on change throughout the delivery process.

What made you decide to start working on easyBacklog?

I am also the co-founder of an agency called Aqueduct, and we have been using agile and scrum for 5 years now to deliver projects for clients. We found that whilst there are plenty of agile tools on the market, none of them were very good at helping out during the initial scoping and estimation phase because they were slow to use and didn’t produce cost or time estimates, so we ended up reverting to Excel. Also, in a commercial environment, whilst we have managed to get our clients to buy into agile processes, they still fundamentally wanted us to agree to contracts to deliver a certain amount of work in an agreed time frame within an agreed budget. So once again, no other agile or scrum tool out there helped manage this.

At Aqueduct we have been delivering fixed cost agile for years, and now with the help of easyBacklog’s snapshot and versioning features, we can work with clients throughout the project encouraging them to change the scope as they go along, yet allowing them to manage costs and timings transparently at the same time. You have to try the snapshot feature to see to what a difference this has made to our agency and the customers who now use easyBacklog.

How did you come up with the name?

Well that was easy ;) Honestly, we had a few beliefs when we set out to build easyBacklog, it should be simple enough for anyone in the industry to use without any training, and it must not have feature bloat (most products try and do everything for everyone), and it should be opinionated (we follow best practice, lets help people do that too). So our ultimate goal is to design a simple easy to use system for our users, and that’s how we came up with the obvious name easyBacklog.

What is easyBacklog’s USP?

Building your initial backlog so that you can start estimating the project scope, timings, and costs (if you track that), is quicker than anything out there, including Excel. It’s fast, you can do everything using just the keyboard, and there’s no faffing with dialog boxes or formulas.

And snapshots is our point of difference. Assuming you meet with a client, your boss, or the product owner on a particular day and agree what should be in your backlog, you take a snapshot of the backlog on that day for reference. 3 weeks on when you are 3 sprints in, the backlog has naturally changed significantly and as a result your burn down chart indicates you will now complete the project 2 weeks later than anticipated. With snapshots, you can easily compare the current snapshot with a previous version, work out where scope has increased and trim the backlog as necessary. No other tool provides side by side comparisons of the old backlog versus the new in the same way, and this is invaluable if you have any commercial grounding. See this simple example.

What technologies have you used to build easyBacklog?

Rails 3.1 for the back end, Cloudfront for asset caching, Backbone.js for front end views and logic, some CoffeeScript interspersed where we can use it, Node.js for the realtime elements of the site, SASS and HAML, and Heroku and dotCloud for hosting platforms.

Has your initial vision changed since launch?

Of course, we had a very clear idea of where we wanted to be when we launched into beta back in November. We had a very purist view on how people should work using agile and scrum, and we wanted to have a positive effect on the industry.

Unfortunately, what we’ve realised is that not everyone can work in a purist fashion, and sometimes people need to develop processes outside of utopian agile and scrum methodologies, and often they have very good reasons to do so. Take the issue of digital scrum boards. We chose not to include digital scrum boards in our product as easyBacklog is a backlog management tool, not a team collaboration tool. We did provide story card printing facilities to help reduce time wasted writing up story cards to put onto the scrum board. Agile works best when teams use physical boards, have real world interactions, and have stand ups and meetings to discuss things. Digital scrum boards we felt hinder this and the agile manifesto “people over processes”. However, some of our users have said that their teams do not respond as well to physical boards, or they are physically separated and therefore physical boards are not practical. As such, we’re introducing digital scrum boards for those who cannot use physical boards.

So our vision is moving, however the underlying principle is the same. We want to provide an easy to use simple backlog management tool to teams who work in an agile environment.

What was technically the most challenging part of developing easyBacklog?

One always gets surprises when users request new features. We launched without the option for users to turn off cost and time estimations for their backlogs. We soon discovered however that cost and time estimations simply don’t apply to everyone, so we needed to make this an option. Technically this had an impact on virtually every part of the system and took forever to implement robustly. What we have learnt is that technically change is the hardest thing to element, but fortunately because we have such amazing code coverage and integration tests, we can do this without breaking anything.

How long did it take to put together easyBacklog?

We started in January 2011, and launched into beta in Sep-Oct 2011. We’re still in beta however, and we plan to go live in April time when the digital scrum boards are complete and we are happy with them.

Do you have any new features in the pipeline?

Yup, loads, the ones on the near horizon are:

  • Digital scrum boards including tasks for stories
  • Opening up the API and documenting it
  • Import tools
  • Support for non-functional items other than stories such as defects, chore

Could you introduce the team behind easyBacklog.

I am the founder of easyBacklog, and the primary developer as well. Whilst I have been building businesses since I left school, ultimately I love coding and getting my hands dirty in easyBacklog has been immensely fun and rewarding. My background has largely been in the agency world, although I co-founded Econsultancy and took on the CTO role there 11 years ago, so I have a lot of client-side experience too.

The other 2 key people at easyBacklog are:

John Bown, Project Director at Aqueduct. John helps with product development as he is managing agile teams daily and very involved in the agile community.

Guillaume Baut-Menard, CTO at Aqueduct. Guillaume is also very involved in the agile and tech communities in London, and is helping with the publicity and direction of easyBacklog.

You are also co-founder of Econsultancy, a partner in Aqueduct (an agency that implements agile development effectively), and a partner in United Studios (a digital product agency). What is your secret to successfully balancing all of these responsibilities?

Working hard! No, to be honest whilst I am able to juggle a number of things at the same time, the reality is you need to have your focus set firmly on one target. Right now for me that is easyBacklog. I am now a non-exec Director of Econsultancy, Aqueduct and United Studios meaning I am involved at a board level, but am not involved in day to day operations. I really don’t think it’s feasible to be focussed on more than one business at a time.

easyBacklog is currently free. When will the service start making money, and how?

We want to get the big features out the way first, and then launch in hopefully April-May time with a paid service option. The point of our beta was to widen the audience of users and get real feedback before we start charging people. Nearing a 1,000 users now, we’ve certainly benefited from user feedback, and we’ve been careful to listen to all of our users even if we don’t necessarily agree with everything they ask for.

We’re planning to introduce a freemium model so that low usage users can continue to use easyBacklog for free, whilst bigger companies who rely on easyBacklog and can afford to use it should start paying. We will be offering a tiered subscription model.

What do you wish you’d have known 5 years ago that you know now?

Building a product and talking to your customers directly is amazingly rewarding. Whilst at Econsultancy I have had that experience, my co-founder Ashley and the team were more directly involved in dealing with customers whilst I was buried away focusing on product development. And in agency life, the tech teams almost never interact directly with their customer’s customers.

With easyBacklog this has all changed. I am at the coal face in every aspect, I code, I market, I publicise, and importantly I talk with customers daily. Talking with customers is what makes the difference. No longer do I sit in a silo dreaming up ideas that are not practical or simply not right. One thing I have learnt is that it’s important for everyone in the business to meet clients, talk to them about their experiences, and understand where they are coming from. Only then do you get the reward of seeing the fruits of your work, but also you think clearly about where to focus your time and energy as you know what your customers need.

Where do you see easyBacklog in 5 years time?

easyBacklog will never have the scale of a product like Basecamp because it’s built for a niche group of people who follow agile and scrum methodologies for project delivery. So what I aim for is that in 5 years time easyBacklog has a loyal growing customer base who use easyBacklog daily, like they do now, but just more of them. Having a smaller group of people to work with is a benefit in many ways, we can talk to them, we have less customer support needs, and we don’t need to try and build the tool out to do everything.

Has easyBacklog got the feedback and growth you expected during beta?

It’s been brilliant. I speak with customers daily, and the team here discuss the ideas, feedback and suggestions to see how we can potentially incorporate them so long as they fit into our vision for easyBacklog. The beta has been brilliant, but I think it’s time to move into full release soon as the beta has proven that the product is stable, does 90% of what it should be doing, and we have a lot of very happy customers.

Who do you see as your target audience?

Primarily product owners, scrum masters, project managers and their clients / budget holders. However, we have found that a lot of agile team members also use easyBacklog, and as a result we are building out the functionality to enable team members to use easyBacklog.

Who would you say is your biggest competitor?

PivotalLabs, VersionOne, TFS and Atlassian.

What is the biggest hurdle you, personally, have faced or are still facing?

I think we’re actually in a very competitive space. There are lots of companies providing agile tools out there, so we need to clearly communicate where we have strengths. I think the primary difference between easyBacklog and most other products is that the other products are just not focussed on the commercial aspects of project deliver. easyBacklog allows you to quickly estimate a project cost, and manage cost and scope changes throughout. Other products are focussed entirely on delivery, and that is our point of difference. I think our biggest hurdle is finding customers who need to focus on the commercial aspects of a project and communicating our point of difference to them.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

We can’t wait to go live and introduce our subscription model. I think the proof is in the pudding, if customers stay and sign up to our subscriptions then we have a product that’s truly making a difference to our users. If not, it’s back to the drawing board to see what we’ve missed and work out what we need to do to make easyBacklog valuable enough for customers to want to pay to use it. We’re confident we’re going to have a very high conversion rate to paying customers based on our feedback and the regularity of usage by our users.

Can you convince the reader to start using easyBacklog in under 50 words?

Anyone who is implementing agile and understands that resources or budgets are not unlimited and delivery of value is important will understand why easyBacklog is a game changer. Cost and time estimations are simplified, and managing change and costs throughout a project are a breeze.

Finished reading? Check out easyBacklog!

This entry was posted on Sunday, March 18th, 2012 at 12:26 pm GMT. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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