Archive for May, 2008

Top 9 New Features in OnTime V8.1

May 29, 2008 11 comments

Axosoft’s flagship product, OnTime (which is a software project management tool: bug tracking, feature management, team wiki and helpdesk), is constantly being improved. It’s been less than six months since its last major release, and we’ve already made tremendous improvements that will surely please even its most demanding user (usually, me).

In this article, I’m excited to share some of my favorite new features.

New Management Console

Over it’s 8 major releases (and countless minor releases), OnTime has flourished into an unbelievably powerful product. It keeps tracking and managing more as it matures. It keeps acquiring more of the “nice touches” software development teams appreciate. If there is a cost to all of this, it’s the fact that the complexity of the product has increased, a bit, too.

To help address this problem, we created a visual map of managing the OnTime system. Take a look:

OnTime V8.1 Management Console
OnTime V8.1 Management Console Screenshot (Web & Windows)

The new Management Console allows most management functions to be accessed from a single location.

“Hey, the Tools > Manage menu was a single location, too!” you say?

Sure, but what’s great about this console is that it provides:

  • visual grouping of management categories, clustering related management features together (for example managing users and security roles are closely related);
  • visual workflow cues for which order to perform management tasks (for example, you probably want to work on custom fields before designing a field template);
  • detailed tool-tips that explain exactly what each management item is for.

The Management Console also trivializes another task: it effortlessly communicates what you can do with OnTime. With just a 10-second glance users can see that it’s possible to create custom fields, field templates, get email notifications or setup POP email accounts that will be automatically checked with OnTime.

With the new Management Console, I’m betting 90% of existing users will learn something new about OnTime, and 100% of new users will appreciate this feature for the instant crash course in functionality and for providing such a great place to get started.

New Color-Coded Items

Ever wish you could quickly see high priority, open items, items in a particular workflow step or items that are assigned to you without having to sort, filter or re-group your list? Well, now you can! OnTime V8.1 adds item color-coding so that items in various statuses, priorities, severities or workflow steps will naturally jump out at you. Additionally, items assigned to you can appear bold, so you won’t miss them.

This is an incredibly powerful feature that is guaranteed to enhance productivity. Take a look at this screenshot:

Demonstrating Color Coding in OnTime V8.1
OnTime V8.1 for Windows Color Coding Screenshot

OnTime V8.1 Color Coding in Web
OnTime V8.1 for Web Color Coding Screenshot

In this case, you can see that high priority items are highlighted in yellow, critical items are red and items assigned to me (administrator in this case) are bold. Users can decide what, if anything, gets highlighted and which colors to use.

New Email Tab

If you use OnTime to manage your support incidents via email, you’re going to absolutely LOVE the new Email tab. The new email tab allows users who regularly respond to incoming emails to use an interface that is optimized for managing emails rather than incidents.

The result is a huge improvement to productivity for customer support reps.

OnTime V8.1 Email Tab
OnTime V8.1 for Windows – New Email Tab

OnTime V8.1 Email Tab
OnTime V8.1 for Web – New Email Tab

Now support reps can respond to a email-related tickets from a central place designed to manage emails. Users can also search emails, group, filter and sort emails as one might expect from a email-focused work area. 

Wiki Pages Through Customer Portal

The new Wiki page feature in OnTime V8.0 has been tremendously popular. We have seen teams use Wiki pages to collaborate on everything from the creation of standard procedures to team directories to useful web-links to descriptions of major components in their projects (and everything in between). But one type of wiki page that teams couldn’t create, until now, was a page that was visible (and even editable) by their customers.

So, in OnTime V8.1, you can determine whether or not wiki pages are visible and editable in your OnTime Customer Portal. This is a great way to collaborate with customers, share common documents: installation instructions, FAQs and more. You can even permit customers to create and modify documents through the new Wiki tab in the OnTime Customer Portal.

OnTime V8.1 Customer Portal Wiki
OnTime V8.1 Customer Portal Wiki

Move and Easily Close Main Tabs

While the ability to rename OnTime’s main tabs has been in the product for a long time, the visibility of the tabs was controlled only by security privileges. If you had access to a tab, you saw the tab no matter what. The order of the tabs was also carved in stone. So if you’re a support engineer who basically lives in the Incidents tab (the 4th tab), you couldn’t put that tab in the first position and you couldn’t get rid of the other tabs you don’t use.

All that has changed with OnTime V8.1. You can rename tabs (as before), remove them and add them on the fly and determine the order too! Even better is that the settings are saved on a per-user basis, so each user can determine their own tab order or whether or not they want the icon or text to be visible. We think this new enhancement adds a nice finishing touch to the customization of the main OnTime tabs.

Here are two screenshots to illustrate:

Customization of OnTime Tabs

In the above screenshot, you can see the Incident tab being dragged to the first position and only 2 other tabs are visible (all other tabs have been turned off).

OnTime V8.1 Tab Customization

In the above screenshot, you can see 5 tabs turned on with only icons visible (the text has been turned off) and the default order of the tabs has been changed.

Big Notification & Alert Improvements

Alerts have been significantly improved with the following new features:

  • Filter alerts can now provide users with notifications on their own assigned items only, versus all items that meet the filter criteria.
  • Filter alerts can now remember the previous results each time the filter is triggered, and only notify a user if the results have changed since the last time it sent an alert notification.
  • Alerts can be set to recur at a specific time on a daily or weekly basis. You can even set up a scheduled alert to only happen on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 9am if that’s what you want.
Here is a screenshot of the new Alert Schedule:

OnTime V8.1 Alert Schedule
OnTime V8.1 for Windows – New Alert Schedules

OnTime V8.1 for Web - Alert Schedules
OnTime V8.1 for Web – New Alert Schedules

Email notifications are getting an improvement too with the separation of edit notifications from item detail notifications. For example, it’s now possible to receive an email notification when an attachment is added or when a new SCM file is associated to an item or when a new email arrives about a particular item.

Big Performance Gains for OnTime Web

With each new release of OnTime, we have made it our mission to improve some area of performance, while still adding more functionality. With V8.1, the focus has been on Web performance improvements. Here are some of our accomplishments:

  • Add/Edit Pages now load more than 30% faster in IE and more than 50% faster in FireFox
  • Home page has received visual improvements, but still loads slightly faster than before
  • Changing from Projects tab to Customers and Users tabs is now noticeably faster
  • Switching main tabs (defects/features/incidents/etc.) is now noticeably faster
You’ll find that OnTime outperforms any existing product with a comparable feature-set. With that said, there’s always room for improvement and we’ll continuously be on it with each new release!

Support for Visual Studio 2008

We might not be able to keep up with Microsoft product names (Visual Studio, then Visual Studio.NET and back to Visual Studio again), but we keep up with their releases and OnTime V8.1’s Visual Studio[.NET] add-in now supports both VS.NET 2005 and VS 2008. In fact, it even supports Visual Fred 2008.

Lots of Nice Little Touches

There’s a lot more in V8.1. With all these new features, a .1 release is a little misleading. We should probably be calling it OnTime V8.5. Here are some minor improvements that you might find useful:

  • Ability to send SMTP emails through SSL (that means Gmail works now!)
  • Automatic update of actual time spent when work log entries are added
  • Incoming Emails about an existing item can now trigger a workflow change (such as re-open a closed incident)
  • Improvements to default security roles for new databases
  • A new User Resources screen that allows new users to get the most from OnTime
  • Improved item-lock management
  • OnTime Express now has unlimited security roles
  • Ability to search for customer and user email addresses when sending an email
  • Added “Not Like” operator for filters

And of course, we’ve fixed numerous “unadvertised features” (aka bugs).

We think everyone is going to love OnTime V8.1. If you’re currently an OnTime V8.0 user, a V8.1 upgrade is a must-have and if you’re the user of on an older version of OnTime, what are you waiting for?!?! The productivity improvements offered by the new wiki pages and the slew of other improvements in V8.0 and V8.1 are definitely worth the 10-minute upgrade time, so get to it!

The Release Candidate for OnTime V8.1 is available now and the final release will be available in June:

OnTime V8.1 was released on June 11th: 

Get OnTime V8.1 Now


5 Common-Sense Practices Dev Teams Should AVOID

There are a number of common-sense software development practices that can actually hurt your chances of success.

Here are 5 common-sense items you might want to avoid:

1) Treat Team Members the Same

It’s common practice and it makes sense. It’s fair, right? Treat everyone the same. What could be wrong with that?

The origins of the “fairness” practice may come from early childhood when kids discover crying “no fair!” is a great tactic for getting what they want, or maybe it has something to do with the golden rule of “treating thy neighbor as thyself.”

But in practice, we usually do treat our neighbors differently. Some neighbors we hang out with, invite to our houses and party with into the wii hours of the night. Other neighbors we avoid like the plague. So why do we force ourselves to treat all team members the same?

Some team members contribute immensely to the success of the project; they are self motivated, get their work done on-time and get along with everyone. Others, we can hardly count on, they consistently miss self-projected deadlines, they are sick a lot (in the Bahamas) and frequently complain about others.

Why should these two personalities be treated or rewarded similarly? Doing so only reinforces the negative behavior and increases the risk of losing the preferred team member. You have limited resources, both in time and reward-money. If you spread them equally among the team, it’s a disservice to your organization.

You can count on your best team members recognizing that and not tolerating it for long.

2) Follow Established Procedures or Processes

Procedures and processes are there for a reason: to avoid mistakes and to identify the people who make mistakes. Following the rules only makes sense. Avoiding mistakes is a good thing.

Well it might be a good thing, until your best team members start to feel as though their hands are tied behind their backs and if it wasn’t for some stupid process, they would be able to get a task done in 1/10th the time.

Avoiding mistakes is a good thing, but at what cost? Software engineers are essentially problem solvers. That’s what they do all day. The best of them enjoy and derive fulfillment from solving problems with the least amount of effort (both personal effort and computing resources). They are by nature very intelligent people. Every developer on the team probably possesses well-above-average intelligence. They will find ways to solve problems, but if they are bound by some arbitrary rules that prohibit them from deviating from standard procedures and processes, their productivity (and creativity) is limited.

This isn’t to say teams should avoid processes all together. But as a team, there are two ways to view processes: one is to view them as the laws of the land which should be followed at all times and the other is to view them as a set of recommended guidelines that seem to work well, but feel free to deviate as you see fit. The latter is far more productive for intelligent people.

To invoke another biblical adage: The process is created for the team, not the team for the process.

3) Create a Detailed Design Before Starting Development

Seems like a great idea. A detailed design is like a step-by-step instruction list on how to get the job done. Having a detailed design makes the programmer’s job much easier. Nearly brainless. If X is the input, Y is the output. Don’t think about whether or not it makes sense. Just do it.

With detailed designs, you nearly guarantee an increase in productivity and you nearly guarantee a result that’s mediocre at best. Without the ability to refine and adapt a solution as the work is being performed, you eliminate hundreds of branches of potential evolution, which could have made the result that much better.

But having evolutionary branches of a potentially better solution scares a lot of project managers. What if the branches are never-ending and the solutions never get done? That’s a real possibility if the project manager doesn’t do his job well, because a huge part of that job is to help guide the evolution to an outstanding result.

Plus the up-front savings of avoiding a detailed design and opting instead for rough design guidelines will often produce better solutions in less time.

4) Make it Difficult to Change Requirements Mid-way

Project managers are all about delivering their projects on-time and on-budget. The number one risk-factor for delivering a project on-time is a change of requirements.

And, that’s why we have change committees involving numerous people from different departments whose job it is to approve any changes to the established project scope. They analyze the impacts of a change on the project schedule and the budget, often inflating both to increase the likelihood of rejection or at least provide some padding in case the change is approved.

The results are predictable. Changes are nearly always killed by the change committee. Who in their right mind would approve a change that increases the cost of the project and delays the delivery date?

Here’s the big problem with killing nearly all changes: some change is good and by making changes difficult in general, too many changes are killed. It’s a chemotherapy approach of dealing with change…kill nearly everything and hope that the few surviving cells happen to be the ones you wanted to keep in the first place.

That’s definitely one way to do it. But, development teams that employ a democratically-run change committee (1 person, 1 vote) will never create outstanding products. Ideally, changes should be reviewed by teams of 3-4 people, with 1 person having the ultimate say, after considering the input of the committee.

5) Assign Tasks Based on Resource Availability

Gantt charts are a project manager’s best friend as they allow the project manager to view the entirety of the project in a visual representation with dependencies and they can even provide resource assignments. But one of the drawbacks of the Gantt chart (such as Microsoft Project) is that project managers are encouraged to simply assign tasks based on resource optimization and leveling features.

The problem with this should be obvious: important tasks are often randomly assigned to team members based on their availability rather than their skill sets. This is a huge mistake!

Another one of the project manager’s major roles is determining the strengths and weaknesses of each team member and assigning tasks based on this information. Assigning critical or show-stopper tasks to a weak team member is a recipe for disaster. Likewise, assigning trivial tasks to your most talented team members is a waste of your best resources (not to mention a risk of decreasing job satisfaction for those team members).

No Gantt chart is going to identify this information for you. That’s your value-add to the team.

Hopefully by avoiding these common(-sense) mistakes, you can improve your development success. Remember, a lot of the above hinges on the quality of your team, which I wrote about previously. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the above suggestions. Leave a comment if you agree or disagree with some reasons or examples why.

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