Tuesday 30 June 2020

Using Azure DevOps to manage teamwork

It's been interesting observing the rise of Azure DevOps in the last couple of years at Content and Code, and in particular, seeing the usage expand beyond the development team. We now have several teams which are not dev-focused using the platform to manage their work - including architecture and platform/infrastructure teams whose work is oriented towards envisioning, design, configuration, security or testing. In many cases, team leaders have been looking for a task management tool somewhere within the Microsoft stack with deeper capabilities than Planner or To Do, and without the heavy project management emphasis of Project Online. In some cases their work involves files (e.g. PowerShell scripts or JSON snippets) but often does not. The common thing is that a team's work needs to be managed - and once introduced to Azure DevOps Boards, everyone seems to love the feature set offered by Boards and the clarity it brings to the work. Being able to understand priorities, who is working on what and how various tasks relate to each other are perhaps fundamental to teamwork but are done very well in DevOps Boards. Being able to stay up-to-date on specific items without chasing the owner starts to change the team dynamic in significant ways - it's amazing how many interruptions can be avoided and how efficient a team can become. 

Over the next couple of articles, I want to talk about how Azure DevOps can help in many scenarios - not just for advanced development teams. 

I use the slide below to summarise some of the benefits - this was in a presentation aimed at developers, but it's interesting how only a couple of the points are specific to dev work:

By the way, the slide shows a screenshot of the "Work Details" pane in Azure DevOps. This alone is hugely powerful, providing a view of the volume of work assigned to each team members and how this relates to pre-defined limits. The limits come into play by defining the capacity that each person has available in a particular period, meaning that vacations, work on other projects and anything else that takes away from time available to this work can be accounted for - thus keeping forecasts and time management accurate:
In addition to the examples in my company of architecture and platform/infrastructure teams, I think there's even a case for small support teams outside of a full ITSM process to use Azure DevOps over other tools - more on that later. Overall, I see a scale of different levels of Azure DevOps usage where only development teams running agile sprints are likely to move to level 2 or 3, but level 1 can work for so many different teams:

To unpack that a little, here's an overview of what I mean by those different usage levels:

Some of that might not mean too much at the moment, but we'll explore the different areas further in these articles.

A closer look at Azure DevOps Boards

If you're not familiar with the Boards capability, part of the premise is that the team can see a visual board of a task backlog where an item can simply be dragged to another column to update the status, similar to Post It notes on a physical board (Kanban). This is similar to Trello, Planner or some other task management tools of course. Personally, I love the following features:
  • Being able to define your own columns - often these will map to an individual item status such as e.g. New, Approved, In Progress etc. but you can also map multiple states to a column such as "Build and Test"
  • Being able to define swimlanes to go across the board horizontally - to help categorise items regardless of their state
  • Styling rules - some examples I like to implement include:
    • Changing the card color to red for blocked or overdue items
    • Highlighting the tag displayed on the card for certain tags - the image above shows any item tagged with "Data" in a yellow highlight so the team can identify those tasks quickly for example
  • Live updates - meaning that another team members changes are immediately reflected without a page refresh
Here's an example of a board showing some of those features:

Setting up an Azure DevOps project

In the video below, I demonstrate starting from nothing - creating a new DevOps project, and then adding some issues and tasks to assign to team members. I think it gives a good feel for the user experience of working with items and using some of the collaborative features:

Quite a lot of the basic features are shown in this video - defining tasks, tagging, using drag and drop to update an item's status on the board, using collaborative features such as @mentions and "following" to receive update when an item is changed, and more. The elements shown can be summarized into this list, broken down into three areas:


Getting started with Azure DevOps is quick and easy. Licensing is generally considered a good deal for what you get, with the first 5 users free and then $6 per user per month after that. In this post we explored some of the capabilities to support modern teamwork - and my experience is that they really can work amazingly well for a variety of teams. Whilst Azure DevOps has many benefits for developers, we've certainly seen it work well in other contexts too at Content and Code. 

Coming back to the different levels of usage, this article and video focuses on the first level ("Simple"):   

In the next article, I'll cover some of the agile features which help a team run sprints, including use of tools such as the burndown chart Cumulative Flow Diagram - tools which help a team understand their progress through a series of tasks and overall velocity over time: