Tools we used to take our stand-up online

I’ve posted several times on here about team stand-ups (Reinvigorating a daily stand-up by walking the board, Quick fixes to stop ignoring your builds, Be more transparent about your meetings: put them on the board, How we collect team achievements with kudos cards). If you read these posts, you may notice that I’m a big fan of offline techniques: a physical whiteboard, index cards, sticky notes, and, if necessary, print-outs of online content. A certain global pandemic and the ensuing move to remote working made me confront this preference and forced me to find new, online, ways to visualise our work and environment in our stand-ups.

I work for a very Microsoft-centred company, and this influences our choice of tools. I hope that the spirit, if not the detail of these techniques can be easily transferred to whatever tools you have available.

Start with Coffee

We hold our stand-up every day at 11:45. Yes, this was at my instigation, as I’m not a morning person, so I like to run our stand-up at a time when I’m awake and alert. We chose a spot just before lunch (at 12:00!) so it would close off the morning’s work, rather than interrupting anything.

When we were working in the office together, we would often hold our stand-up and then drift off to lunch in small groups. Now we’re remote that’s not possible, so we’ve instituted a team coffee break at 11:30. We open an online meeting and have fifteen minutes of informal chat before we switch over to the day’s stand-up discussions.

When the time comes, I share my screen and we get started on the first discussion point.

Open an online meeting for an informal chat before stand-up.

Web Pages for Everything

I learnt long ago that it’s very easy to forget to discuss anything that’s not immediately visible on your team board. I apply this same principle now we’ve move online.

Whilst physical boards can be configured any way you choose, they only have a finite amount of space. Online sprint boards tend to be somewhat less flexible, but we can compensate for this by creating additional web pages with further discussion points on them.

Create additional web pages for further discussion points.

Use the Widgets

We track our work items in Azure DevOps, and the platform comes with a pretty flexible dashboard system, with a good selection of widgets. You can create whizzy graphs and visualise the status of your Build and Release pipelines.

However, my favourite two widgets are perhaps the most mundane: Markdown and Embedded Web Page.

We use the Markdown widget to add custom text and status messages to many of our dashboards, and I particularly enjoy the way you can create checklists and lists of links to other dashboards.

We use the Embedded Web Page widget for something even more important: a clock! I couldn’t a widget that would allow me to embed a clock on a dashboard, and I find it rather useful to timestamp the page, particularly if we’re going to screenshot it for sharing. To solve this problem, I created an Azure Function that returns a snippet HTML formatted with the same font used on the dashboard, and I embedded it on the page with an Embedded Web Page widget.

If there’s no widget support for what you want, create a web page elsewhere and use the Embedded Web Page widget.

Bookmark Everything

We currently use six separate pages for our stand-up. In Chrome I’ve created a folder in my Bookmark bar for all these tabs (to bookmark several pages at once, type Ctrl + Shift + D), and I can open them all at once by wheel-clicking on the folder.

Our six pages are:

  • Stand-up Overview
  • Team Stories Board
  • DevOps Stories Board
  • Pairing Staircase
  • End-to-End Test Status Dashboard
  • Calendar

Create a folder for all your stand-up pages, so you can open them all at once.

Stand-up Overview

This is the starting and finishing point for our stand-up discussion. It’s implemented as a dashboard with the following sections:

  • A panel with the sprint number, sprint name, and a checklist of our goals. This is implemented as a Markdown widget, and we edit the content as we complete the goals.
  • A date/time clock, implemented as an Embedded Web Page.
  • A panel with links to the other pages we use in our stand-up, and links to personal recognition pages on our company performance system. This is another Markdown widget.
  • A Sprint Overview widget.
  • A Cycle Time widget.
  • A Burndown Chart widget.
  • A Velocity widget.

We often find ourselves looking at the Burndown chart, which gives us a sense of whether our sprint is playing out as we hoped it would, and our Cycle Time chart, which is helpful for assessing our pace and flow of work.

Sometimes simple is best. Use a Markdown widget to track your goals.

Team Stories Board

This page comes the closest to a recognisable team board. We use the Boards feature of Azure DevOps, with some customisations.

  • We set our board to display stories, as this is the level at which we track our work.
  • We don’t filter by sprint, as we use this board to visualise our Product Backlog and Sprint Candidates as well as the items in our current sprint.
  • We use custom styles to indicate which stories are part of this sprint, which are overdue, and which are in our backlog.
  • We use tags and tag styles to give a quick indication of blocked stories (we also link these stories to their blockers).
  • We organise our board into seven columns, just as we did on a physical board:
    • Product Backlog. This corresponds to the New Status.
    • Candidates. A story becomes a candidate when it is refined and pointed.
    • Sprint Backlog. These are the stories chosen at sprint planning, plus any extras.
    • In Development.
    • Ready for Demo. These stories are essentially development-complete, but we demonstrate them to each other before closing them.
    • Done. This is a holding area so we can celebrate the completion of each story at stand-up.
    • Closed.
  • In addition, we split the central five columns into five swim lanes, and use these to track various other types of work:
    • Development contains our standard work items.
    • Meetings and Discussions visualises the many meetings I participate in.
    • Retro Actions
    • Kudos. As we can no longer hand each other kudos cards, we put them on the board.
    • To discuss. This swimlane is a hack. I drop an item in here if there’s something extra I want to discuss at stand-up.

Use swimlanes to visualise non-development work and topics for discussion

DevOps Stories Board

We have a DevOps team and rely on them to provide and configure infrastructure. Many of our stories are dependent on work being done by the DevOps team. We work closely with a member of the DevOps team, and he regularly attends our stand-ups.

Every day we look at the DevOps board, filtered to show only those tasks raised by our team. This gives us a change to check that we’ve provided all the information needed to complete any tasks we’ve raised.

You can filter other teams’ boards to see just those tasks raised by your team.

Pairing Staircase

In the office I would print out a templated pairing staircase for each sprint, and we used a bingo dabber to mark who had paired with whom.

When we moved online, I spruced up the Excel spreadsheet I had made for printing. I added a sum to the right of each person’s initials, and used Conditional Formatting Colour Scales to make it pretty.

A pairing staircase implemented as an Excel Spreadsheet

End-to-End Test Status Dashboard

We’ve written several suites of tests that run typical client journeys against our system. Failures in these tests can indicate instabilities across our ecosystem.

These tests run against each of our environments, and are build using Azure DevOps Release Pipelines, as these make it straightforward to run the same steps against several environments.

We use the Deployment Status widget to show the results of each of these suites of tests, and gather all these widgets on one dashboard, along with a clock (in an Embedded Web Page widget) and a notes panel (in a Markdown widget) to give details of any ongoing investigations and outstanding bugs.

We also send a screenshot of this dashboard to our colleagues every day so they can see how well we’re doing at keeping our environment stable.

Use the Markdown widget to give details of ongoing investigations and outstanding bugs.

Calendar

Our final page is our team Calendar in Azure DevOps, which automatically shows us our sprint diary. To this we add:

  • Holidays. Whenever I sign off someone’s leave, I add it to this calendar as well.
  • Office closed days and other events.
  • Our weekly build duty rota, which determines who investigates any issues.
  • Days we dedicate to working on our goals.
  • Planned releases.

By discussing this daily, we make sure it’s up to date and there are no nasty surprises.

Check your calendar daily to make sure there are no nasty surprises.

Back to the Overview

We end the stand-up by returning to the Overview dashboard.

Any stores we’ve closed will now be reflected in our charts (after a quick refresh of the page), and we take a moment to update the checklist of our goals.

We put out a final call for any other business, and wish each other a happy continuation of the day.

“Any more for any more? … Happy Wednesday!”

Me, at the end of every stand-up (give or take the name of the day!)

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