Where Are the *Real* Agile Tools?

by Jeff Langr

March 01, 2017

"Tools," courtesy Andy / Andrew Fogg. [license]

There are at least a hundred for-profit or open source tools to help you track your agile / Scrum project. Here is a list, from 2013, of 70 such tools.

If you’ve read Agile in a Flash or some of my blog entries, you’d quickly gather that I’m not a fan of most software-based project tracking tools–you’re better off using whiteboards and/or physical card walls. Introduce a software tool only if you must. And if your need is solely for reporting up to management (hmmm), remember that it’s the SM’s/project manager’s job to capture, consolidate, and distribute such information. Please don’t involve the rest of the team in this.

The tools I seek instead are those that help our team communicate and collaborate better. We’re 15+ years into “agile;” I’d hoped for far more collaboration tools than exist today. (What’s my excuse for not building any of it?)

Development Tools

IDEA, Eclipse, and even VisualStudio (with Resharper added) are powerful. To what extent do these tools directly support TDD? IDEA, Eclipse, and VS all support unit testing out of the box, but that scratches only the surface. While plugins exist for many of these interests, I’d like to see direct support for things like:

  • find usages in tests only

  • switch between test and production class at a keystroke (or even… open the test, it opens the prod file, and vice versa, and aligns them in split windows)

  • provide the ability to configure formatting in a different manner than production code

  • built-in coverage tools

With TDD, tests and production code are inexorably linked. It would be nice to work in an IDE that supported TDD as the primary workflow for building software.


Pairing will never supplant loner development. But it’s still a preferred way of working for many developers, including those distributed geographically.

Shared Machine

If we’re pairing and you’re sharing your machine and IDE, I’m stuck with your horrifying choices for keymaps (I need my vim!), colors, font, and font size. One or both of us must make concessions to the most-comfortable setup we would choose. How sad.

The problem of disconcerting configs would be reasonably easily solved if the major IDEs supported a universal config-switching scheme. Sets of profiles (one profile per IDE, I suppose) would be stored somewhere accessible via http. The first time I sit on your machine, I’d enter my profile-set location. The IDE would provide a universal hotkey that toggles between active profiles (right now, you would typically need to go through one or more Preferences/Settings pages to switch out all the preferences). My turn to pair? I press the toggle hotkey, and my preferred setup is loaded..

Another focus would include supporting accessibility considerations for pairs. Some folks need a considerably large font, for example. A pair-friendly IDE would provide the ability to easily sport multiple views across multiple monitors.

Multiple Machines

Using multiple machines might ultimately be a better world than my shared machine ideas above, even if I’m physically sitting next to you.

Screen-shared programming sessions usually suffer latency issues, particularly for the remote pair. If you’re a VIM or Emacs weenie, however, you can run an effective pairing session using tmux/tmate or screen. The character-mode interaction makes it almost as good as being there–particularly when coupled with cameras, quality audio, and a screen share so that you can see the UI interactions on the host machine. This is my preferred remote-pairing setup, but I admit that there are some great things I lose that IDEs like IDEA can provide.

Atom also supports a plugin called Motepair that “enables remote pair programming using Github’s editor.”

Subscription-based cloud IDEs like Cloud9, Codeanywhere (which has a free version), and Codenvy are an option, but for now, most of us would probably prefer to stick with our IDEA or VisualStudio or Eclipse. (And I’m resisting paying for yet another subscription…) Having not used these, I’m not sure how truly collaborative they are. Your experiences are welcome in the comments!

The subscription-based Floobits takes things one step further, offering the premise of allowing clients to use whatever IDE they choose… as long as it’s Emacs, IDEA, Neovim, Sublime Text, or Atom (no Eclipse or Visual Studio yet). I’ve not tried it, but it sounds fantastic. Koding appears to be another tool with a similar model.

Other attempts have been made to create remote pairing plugins for specific IDEs. I remember XPairtise, an Eclipse plugin, which was file-based (it synced at the file system level) and had no end of problems. Now there’s SAROS, a still-active open source initiative.

In-Meeting Tools

There’s little worse than watching someone struggle through typing story data into a tool like Rally. The tool often requires lots of clicking about, which can create a distraction for the rest of the team in the room.

In contrast, I’ve found simple virtual card wall solutions like Trello to be fantastic, however. I’ve run and been a party to iteration planning, retrospectives, and other distributed (and non-distributed!) meetings where Trello was the tool of choice. It’s highly tactile and responsive; all parties see changes as they occur. With plugins, things like dot-voting on cards promote Trello to a great general purpose tool for managing and tracking just about any collaborative meeting. Worst case is that you need to export the information to sync up another tool elsewhere.

Ultimately: I wish all applications supported true real-time collaboration. Google Docs is a great example of a tool that effectively supports live editing by multiple people.

If we really believe in agile, let’s insist that the tools we use and build all support collaborative capabilities, and not just as an afterthought.

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Jeff Langr

About the Author

Jeff Langr has been building software for 40 years and writing about it heavily for 20. You can find out more about Jeff, learn from the many helpful articles and books he's written, or read one of his 1000+ combined blog (including Agile in a Flash) and public posts.